Harbor resident Vikki Pruden is grateful the county has started to address nuisance properties so something can be done about the filth, vermin and sewage surrounding a house 14 feet from hers on West Benham Lane.
“I have been chased by rats and raccoons, it’s infested by ants and fleas, our health has deteriorated from the rank odors coming from garbage in the garage next door,” she told Curry County commissioners in their meeting Wednesday. “Rodents hunt near the heating system, making the whole house reek when it rains. The stench from mold and bacteria inside the building, the rotten and decaying wood, the sewage and animal urine and feces; it’s deplorable.”
Commissioners, who are trying to hire a code enforcement officer, have lately been tackling such homes — all in Harbor, so far — as part of their duties to provide citizens with a safe and healthy environment. Past boards have said they neither had the authority nor money to address such properties.
Pruden bought her home 20 years ago, and even then, she said, sewage would pool in the yard. She built French drains but the stench remained.
Her family has become ill because of the unsanitary conditions, too, Pruden said.
“We’ve had upper respiratory problems, rashes — our daughter has 24 hours a day congestion, watery eyes. She has learning disabilities from not being able to breathe.
“I’m worried about the long-term effects of toxins, of molds, on my daughter’s health, that are condemning her to a lifetime of illnesses. We’re prisoners in our own home.”
Commissioner Sue Gold said Pruden’s photos were worth “5,000 words, in this case,” and informed her the county is starting to tackle these problems. There are believed to be hundreds throughout the area.
Tackling the ick
The county now has in place ordinances addressing nuisance properties, which are defined as those that create a health and safety hazard in the community.
The process to proclaim a property as a nuisance, however, is arduous, requiring investigations, notification to the owner, a determination the property is indeed a nuisance, and getting the owner to address the problem, whether it involves merely cleaning up the area or razing buildings.
If nothing is done, the county can do the work itself and put a lien on the property to get its money back when the property sells.
The first property the county addressed was on Hamilton Lane in Harbor, where a house burned down last October but still had people living in the garage, defecating in five-gallon buckets and piling trash and other debris throughout the property. Utilities to the site were discontinued years ago.
Despite meeting with the owner to discuss how the property would be cleaned up, nothing has been done there in the past month, County Attorney John Huttl added.
West Benham homes
Interim County Administrator John Hitt said he inspected the house, a single-wide home, camper and sheds on the Benham Lane property.
The single-wide mobile home appears to be abandoned, he said. Services were disconnected in July 2014, a sign posted there reads. One side of the home has collapsed, the house is filled with junk and the roof is caving in.
A small barn on the property features heavy support timbers collapsing and trash throughout. Another small shed has an abandoned refrigerator inside — a specific code violation.
The 1,500-square-foot main home has nail-filled boards littered in the tall grass at the front door, Hitt said. Building materials are scattered throughout, and the house is encrusted with “rampant mold,” he said.
“Personally, I have never seen anything like this,” Hitt said. “It’s terrible — terrible. The ceiling and wall are collapsing, there’s filth everywhere, rotted-out floors, overgrown weeds. In my personal opinion, I would not have entered any of those structures without one of those spacesuits with an outside air supply, completely covered head to toe. That’s the condition of these properties.”
Rectifying the situation could be delayed because the homeowner, Julie Raiter, told commissioners she thought the house had been foreclosed upon after she and her mother abandoned it due to her mother’s illness years ago. She told commissioners she didn’t even know her name was still on the title.
In that case, the county will likely have to conduct a title search, Huttl said, and, using laws put in place after the housing crash in 2008, pursue the bank that holds the deed. Law requires mortgage lenders maintain property upon which they have foreclosed, he said.
Gold suggested involving the public health department, which the county spun off to the nonprofit Curry Community Health in 2012 to save money. But Hitt noted that, in an agreement the board signed in January, the county will soon be taking over that function again.
“If these abatements fall on the county, they’re going to be expensive,” he said. “Hamilton could be $40,000; this one will be even higher. And there are lots of these properties scattered around the county.”
“If we’re going to pursue these, if they’re $20,000 a pop to clean up, that’s $100,000 just for five of them, and we’ve got (hundreds) of them,” Huttl said. “It may be in budget process, but we can only do X-number at a time.”