The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

October 25, 2012

City takes new look at unsafe buildings

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

— Athens residents may see fewer unsafe structures and dangerous buildings in the future.

At least that was the goal of the City Council Monday when it revised the ordinance governing such property.

City Attorney Shane Black said the revision was prompted by two developments — problems with the existing state law and a diminishing number of properties with known owners.

The revised ordinance will deal with “those situations where there has been no cooperation with the owner, where the building is unsafe and where the department has been unable in working with the owner to make it safe,” Black said.

The revision — which sets into place a nine-step process — provides the city “with a more efficient way to deal with properties that are dilapidated, that act as a blight, that affect property values, and that are a possible haven for crime,” the attorney said.

For those wondering why the city did not take this step years ago, Black cited three:

1.) Existing state law worked in many situations in the past, he said.

“There have been different times when we used existing law to tear down burned out buildings where the ownership of the property is clear,” Black said.

2.) Problems with existing state law have only recently developed. Black cited situations where the state law had been challenged and, as a result, cities lost their battle to have property remediate. In one case, a city had asked a person who paid the annual taxes on the property to correct a safety problem. When no action was taken, the city razed the building, only to later learn the property had been sold to someone else. In other words, the city failed to tell the right owner to fix the property.

3.) Athens city officials have reached the point where they have dealt with most of the unsafe properties for which the owners are known to them, now they want to pursue the others.

The rules include identifying property, scheduling of notification letters, the format of those notice, what constitutes a dangerous structure, the assignment of a grade to the structure and better notification — a title search — to get clear owners.