While the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday night to have two dilapidated houses razed, it also raised questions about how the city can recoup the expenses of such actions.
Since demolitions cost money and present municipal policy limits the remedies that can be taken, officials discussed possibly adopting new guidelines that could include tax foreclosures, or forced sales, of the land involved in order to recover those expenditures.
“It seems like we’re taking the right steps, but we’re not pulling the trigger,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said of separate board votes to have rundown houses at 335 Price St. and 2046 Dyson Place torn down. Owners of each have neglected to take such action on their own, even though the houses were posted as unsafe last year.
Thursday’s commissioners’ meeting also included setting aside more than $9,000 in city funding for the demolitions — money that Cawley wonders will ever be recovered.
Under present policy, those costs simply will be applied as a lien against the two sites, which means the city won’t get paid unless those parcels are sold.
“Are we going to spend more money than the properties will be worth?” Cawley asked.
While the two houses in question are deemed eyesores as well as hazards and should be torn down, Cawley said he is concerned about the cumulative effect as similar cases surface. Mount Airy officials have focused much attention recently on minimum housing code violations with the help of a private planning firm hired by the city.
“I see where we’re headed with this and we have an investment we’re never going to recover,” Cawley said of that trend.
Pointing out that the city hasn’t embraced a policy of forcibly taking such properties, he suggested that this should be a consideration going forward. It’s a question that needs to be answered before a lot of money is spent on other demolitions, Cawley said.
Another commissioner, Shirley Brinkley, suggested at one point that such money might be well-spent. “Sometimes you have to take a loss for improvement,” Brinkley said.
“I think this is basically the only way to have it cleaned up,” Emily Hines, a planning official who has been involved with housing codes enforcement, said of a problem property.
City Manager Barbara Jones said that while tax foreclosures haven’t been pursued by the municipality, “it’s a board policy decision” to do otherwise.
“What does it take for us to start doing that?” Commissioner Scott Graham quickly responded.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell and Finance Director John Overton shed light on that question by noting that the Surry County government has taken the lead on foreclosures in the past, since properties in the city are taxed by both the municipality and county.
The county has more resources for such actions, Overton said. But Campbell added that the accompanying legal processes can add about another $1,000 to the expenses accumulated.
“Sometimes the county ends up with a vacant piece of land,” he said, which it can’t sell. “But it’s certainly something that could be accomplished,” the attorney added of the foreclosure approach.
As Thursday’s discussion progressed, Commissioner Steve Yokeley said he favored going ahead with the two demolitions at hand and explore tax-sale or similar approaches as soon as possible.
Dean Brown, another commissioner, agreed.
“I think we should go on with the process we’ve started,” Brown said of the two houses in question. “It will let people know we’re sincere about this.”
If nothing else, razing the houses will increase the value of the land they’re on as well as that of neighboring properties, the board’s discussion indicated.
Brinkley asked if the fire department could simply burn such structures as a training exercise, even though clean-up work would still result.
Fire Chief Zane Poindexter said the department is prohibited from torching houses that have been condemned, and trying to alter this for training purposes would be “a long, drawn-out process.”
The city manager said the proposed policy changes will be studied in addressing future cases of neglected houses that come before the board.
Rec Plan Approved
Also Thursday night, the city commissioners officially approved a new recreation master plan that will serve as a guide for facilities and programs over the next 10 years.
The unanimous vote came after a presentation by Joel Moulin, senior project manager of the Raleigh consulting firm WK Dickson and Co. Inc. It was paid $35,000 to prepare the master plan, updating a process last undertaken in 2001.
Moulin said the latest plan emphasizes improvements to existing facilities to better serve the needs of the public, rather than constructing new ones which has been a trend in recent years.
Much of its findings and recommendations were based on citizen comments at a series of public meetings, along with a written survey. Moulin said 513 surveys were completed, which are said to have represented a cross-section of the community.
Swimming was found to be the top recreational activity locally, with about 85 percent of the survey respondents also indicating that they regularly walk on the city’s greenways.
Most citizens believe the municipal recreation department is doing a good job meeting the present needs, but also would favor enhancements such as more programs being available during evening hours.
In response to a question from Commissioner Brinkley about his recommendations, Moulin suggested that one step local officials could take is incorporating the quality of local recreation services into economic-development efforts as a selling point for recruiting businesses.
Brinkley said she would like to see the city match what commercial establishments such as ProHealth Center offer. She mentioned the need for a therapeutic pool as one example, which would benefit those with medical conditions.
The master plan will soon be posted on the city government website, according to Catrina Alexander, parks and recreation director.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.