April 19, 2014

Elyria
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Dilapidated house disgusts, frustrates neighbors

ELYRIA — The list of people who want to see a wrecking ball slam into 352 S. Maple St. is long.

Neighbors think the home on the city’s south side, which was boarded up in 2007 following a drug bust and is now falling apart, is a shining example of the kind of blight that damages neighborhoods and changes the landscape of a city.

They want the home gone — like yesterday.

“I resent the fact that I am a proud homeowner and do what I can to keep my home looking nice and someone else is just allowed to do nothing,” said 71-year-old Melvin Brown, who lives two doors down from the house.

Brown was sitting in a chair on the front porch of the home he has owned since 1980 as he spoke on a warm July day. His home is painted a deep shade of sky blue and has several flower pots on the steps. When asked if he considers himself a good homeowner, Brown puts out the cigarette he is smoking and matter-of-factly said anyone can look around if they don’t believe him.

The retired Parker Hannifin machinist said he always wanted to be a homeowner. And he has always lived on South Maple. He was born in the house right next door to the one he now shares with his wife, Joanne Brown.

“The Brown family has a long tradition on the south side. Everyone knows the Browns,” he said.

“But right now, I’m losing value on my house because of that house. It just needs to come down.”

Brown’s words are echoed by other neighbors, and while city officials are fighting to make their demolition dreams come true, they will also say the home is still standing because it is a good example of how long and arduous the condemnation and demolition process can be — a process that affords many rights to property owners and legally limits the power of a municipality like Elyria to just seize private property even if they deem it undesirable.

City officials often use the house as an example of how difficult it is to bring down any home — and the city has dozens in similar states.

“It’s just one of many houses that need to come down in the city,” Law Director Scott Serazin said. “But this one — there is no way to put anyone in there or to sell it.”

The situation may be the extreme in terms of the legal battle the city is fighting, but Serazin said it is just an example of a larger trend.

Working through

a slow system

Wayne Fitzpatrick sighed with exhaustion one Wednesday afternoon and sat back in a recliner in the living room of his South Maple Street home.

The decor is clean, homey and inviting — the kind of home that is perfect for raising a family — and a stark contrast to the ramshackle home next door.

Typically, a homeowner likes to talk about the improvements they have done to their own humble abode — the sprinkler system, landscaped backyard or new paint job. But Fitzpatrick said it’s easy to reprogram how you speak when you have to look at something ugly every time you look out your front window.

“I’m just through,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s ridiculous how slow the system moves. The city says be patient, but my patience has run out. I’m ready to put my house on the market and just walk away.”

Fitzpatrick’s frustration shows on his face as he starts to talk about the neighboring home that — although being condemned by the city on May 12 — is not slated for demolition as the owner, George Schneider, fights the city to reverse the condemnation order.

Schneider, public records say, wants the city to give him more time to make repairs.

Schneider’s first step in making the request came in the form of an appeal to the Board of Building Standards within weeks of city officials tacking a condemnation notice on the front door.

In a response filed by Schneider’s attorney Brent English that aimed to address the 44 violations the city Building Department put forth as proof the building needed to be condemned, English said Schneider “would not to just sit by and let his house go.”

“We are determined to ensure this will not happen,” he wrote in the seven-page letter to city officials, which was dated June 27.

English said in the letter that many of the things the city has done to move the condemnation forward were not the result of bona fide complaints from someone like Fitzpatrick or Brown. Rather, they were “a contrivance of the Building Department.”

English said a reasonable time of six months should be given to bring the property into compliance.

Serazin said those same sentiments were reiterated by English and Schneider on July 19 when a hearing was held in front of the Board of Building Standards in regards to the appeal.

That hearing resulted in the board upholding the city’s condemnation order, although Serazin said he expects Schneider to appeal the ruling.

English did not return calls made to his office seeking comment.

Everyone knows

this address

The waiting game to find out what will happen to 352 S. Maple St. is nothing new for those who live near it.

In fact, Fitzpatrick said he does not even hold Schneider responsible for everything that has happened at the home in the last 10 years.

Schneider, a seasoned property owner from Lorain who owns so many homes and properties in various cities that county officials cannot even pinpoint an exact number, bought the south side home in 2009.

Before that, it was a home labeled as a drug haven by law enforcement.

“But he didn’t make things better,” Fitzpatrick said. “He bought that house for next to nothing and has done next to nothing with it. But it’s easy for him to just let it sit. He doesn’t have to live here.”

Fitzpatrick said the struggles with the home started nearly 10 years ago.

“You know people still drive down the street some days and point at the house,” he said. “It used to be one of the biggest drugs houses in the city. Everyone knows this address.”

Halfway through his talk, Fitzpatrick goes outside. He said the only way to fully understand what its like to live near the home is to see what the dilapidated structure up close.

“I thought my worries were over when the boards went up on that house,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I had no idea they were just started.”

For residents of South Maple Street, including City Councilman Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward, who lives across the street from the now-condemned home, the process they have witnessed from their front yards is frustrating, to say the least.

“It lets me know as a city what we are up against and how long the process can be,” Madison said. “This is not as simply as nailing some board to the windows and eventually knocking the home down. We are getting close with this home, but there are more homes just like this throughout the 5th Ward that need to come down.”

But until a wrecking ball hits the home, other neighbors say they will remain skeptical of the process.

“They can’t sugar coat it. It’s the city’s fault and they could have done more if they wanted to,” said Joanne Brown. “The city dropped the ball.”

The violations keep coming

Documentation from the city Building Department shows how much involvement city inspectors have had with owners past and present of the home.

The paperwork dates back to April 2004, when a Margaret Rutledge was listed as the owner. Then, a bunch of junk cars were parked in the driveway, but the inspector at the time had concluded after a visit Rutledge was not in violation of any city code.

By June of that year, inspectors were back at the home because the roof was deteriorating and the chimney was getting ready to fall. But enforcement came to an abrupt stop when the inspector learned Rutledge had died.

“The law director cannot sign charges to anyone they cannot find or is deceased,” then-inspector Jim Longstreth wrote in an enforcement report.

For the next two years, the inspector returned to the home a number of times. Rutledge was still listed as the owner on the Building Department’s reports from that time frame, but the narrative portion of Longstreth’s reports show that he could only speak to a number of different tenants when he went to the home.

One tenant claimed the owners were out of state and a couple of them said the owners were deceased, the report said.

In the meantime, the violations continued to pile up and now the record on file in City Hall for that single house is more than an inch thick.

Serazin said between then and now, Schneider snatched the home up for roughly $5,000 at a sheriff’s sale. Serazin said Schneider has said the purchase was a mistake and he intended to buy another home.

“It’s not livable,” Serazin said. “We intend to go forward and have this building demolished. It’s a blight to the community and it has been for a long time.”

In 2011, the city began prosecuting the home’s building violations as a criminal case against Schneider, but that case has dragged on for months. Serazin said the hope was that the double-barreled approach would result in the home coming down faster.

While the court case was being handled, Chief Building Inspector Phil Lahetta assigned the home to another inspector, Darryl Farkas, to start the condemnation process.

Court records show that Schneider was charged with a property maintenance code violation and entered a plea of not guilty on July 6, 2011. Within two months, Schneider changed his plea to no contest and an agreement was reached that if adequate repairs were done to the house — including exterior painting — the case would be dismissed.

That happened in June of this year.

“The home was in terrible condition that entire time although some time in the fall, someone did the work on the roof,” Serazin said. “But even that work was done without the benefit of a building permit and building inspector. We are working hard to get this house down because property owners have to know that sitting on these properties, watching them deteriorate and then coming to court claiming you have done some work is unacceptable.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.