Cleaning up

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By Stephen Lega

John Thompson is responsible for enforcing the nuisance property ordinance approved by the Lebanon City Council at the beginning of 2010.

So how effective does he think the ordinance has been? On a scale of one to 10, Thompson said it's been a six or seven.

"We've had some clean ups. We are going to get more to clean up," he said. "And I know of three [houses] that have been torn down."

Thompson thinks the ordinance will be even more effective if he is able to take one more step, seeking a court order to allow the city to take control of some of the more troublesome properties. He and Lebanon City Attorney Kandice Engle-Gray plan to talk with the city council about that at the next regular council meeting, which is scheduled for Sept. 13.

Thompson's report to the city council in August listed 46 notices of violations that have been issued this year.

Of those 46, eight properties are listed as not in compliance.

With regard to the remaining 38 properties, some owners are in compliance, some property owners are making progress, and some have agreements with the city to address the problems.

One area where the city has an agreement in place is on S. Spalding Avenue. James Russell Mattingly owns the houses at 317, 321, 325 and 330 S. Spalding Avenue.

According to Thompson's report, he spoke with Mattingly's daughter, and the family wanted to either sell the properties or allow the fire department to burn them. The Marion County Fire School is scheduled for Oct. 10, and Thompson's report reads that the fire chief has said they may be used for training purposes at that time. The city has agreed to clean up the debris after the training exercise.

If a property owner does not address a problem after he or she receives a notice, the city has the option of issuing a citation, which comes with a $100 fine. A second citation comes with a $250 fine, and any subsequent citation come with a $500 fine.

Engle-Gray stressed that the purpose of the ordinance is not to make money for the city. The purpose is to clean-up properties. However, on a few properties where the city has not seen progress, the city attorney and the enforcement officer are willing to go beyond the repeated citations.

"We are ready to move forward with the final order and the abatement," Engle-Gray said.


For the most part, the people that Thompson has spoken to were aware that they had properties that needed to be cleaned up.

"As far as the property owners, I've not gotten any resistance," Thompson said.

Nevertheless, he has not had direct contact with all the owners.

Some of the properties in violation have owners from out-of-state, such as Countrywide Home Loans (Van Nuys, Calif.), BAC Home Loan Servicing (Plano, Texas, and Simi Valley, Calif.), HCBC Bank USA (San Diego, Calif.) and Navy Federal Credit Union (Vienna, Va.).

The most common concern with the properties belonging to out-of-state owners has been overgrown weeds. In some cases, the city has mowed the properties themselves and sent an invoice to the property owner, Thompson said.

Engle-Gray explained that it can be more expensive to seek legal action against these out-of-state property owners, so instead, the city will apply for liens against the property based on the maintenance work that has been done by city employees.

With a lien on the property, this will show up when someone decides to buy the property, and according to Engle-Gray, the potential buyer will likely want the out-of-state owner to take care of it. Otherwise, the lien would become the responsibility of the buyer.

"We'll recoup some of our money," Thompson said. "I'm sure we're not going to get it all, but we'll recoup what we can."

But not all the problems are the result of owners that reside in other parts of the country.

The property owner who has been cited more often than any other, to date, is a Lebanon resident.

Frank Spragens is listed as the owner of 226 W. Chandler Street and 322 S. Proctor Knott Avenue. On a third property, 412 S. Proctor Knott, the owner is listed as Polly Spragens in care of Frank Spragens.

On all three properties, the city sent notices of violation on March 9. The notices were claimed March 10, according to Thompson's report.

The city followed up with citations on all three properties March 23. Those citations - which are sent by certified mail, according to Engle-Gray - were received March 24. Second citations were sent April 29 and received April 30, and third citations were sent July 1.

All total, the city has sent three notices and issued nine citations with fines totaling $2,550 against Spragens' properties. According to Thompson, the city hasn't seen any progress on any of the three properties, and according to Engle-Gray, the city has not received any response regarding the citations.

Spragens said he doesn't have any excuses for why he hasn't done anything. He said some people have a problem with alcohol or drugs, but he has a different issue.

"I think I'm the prince of procrastination," he said.

Spragens said a lot of things should have been done a long time ago.

"The state that they are in, I can't put that off on anybody else," he said.

Spragens added that he planned to go talk to Thompson. He also said he hoped to do something with his properties before the weather turns bad this year, if possible.

"It won't all be done overnight, but it will be tended to," Spragens said.

As of Friday, Engle-Gray explained that the city could seek a court order to obtain control of the property. If the city gains control of the property, it could tear down the houses. However, that means the city would also be taking on the cost of the demolition and clean-up, according to Engle-Gray.

Based on the estimates they have received, some properties may cost $3,000 to $5,000 to tear down and others could cost as much as $20,000.

And that's why Thompson and Engle-Gray intend to talk to the city council next month.

"If they [the city council] can find it in the budget to go the next step, it's going to be quite effective," Thompson said.

But Engle-Gray reiterated that the city's goal isn't to punish people, it's to clean-up nuisance properties throughout the city. While she said she can't speak for the city council or for Thompson, she is of the belief that the city could be willing to work with property owners as long as they can see they are making an effort to become compliant.

"We have been trying to foster voluntary cooperation and abatement by the landowners," Engle-Gray said. "But as you can see by the length of the citations, we are not experiencing a favorable response from some."