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DeKalb’s inspection process for commercial, industrial properties to be folded into one ordinance

Published: Monday, Aug. 11, 2014 11:39 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014 12:27 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Danielle Guerra – dguerra@shawmedia.com)
The Wurlitzer Co. building sits condemned Monday at 1660 Pleasant St. in DeKalb. Part of the building collapsed in May 2012. DeKalb officials cited the collapse of the building as a major reason for wanting stricter guidelines and checks with commercial buildings in the city.
Caption
(Danielle Guerra – dguerra@shawmedia.com)
A sign from the DeKalb Health Department is taped on the shuttered music venue Otto's on Monday in downtown DeKalb. The building was condemned in January after a water pipe burst creating significant water damage throughout the aging building.
Caption
(Danielle Guerra – dguerra@shawmedia.com)
The Travel Inn, a 120-room hotel sits closed Monday at 1116 W. Lincoln Highway. It was closed by city inspectors May 23.

DeKALB – DeKalb leaders are moving forward with sweeping changes to the city's building inspection regulations to address the number of dangerous and deteriorating buildings in the city.

At Monday' s City Council meeting as a Committee of the Whole, City Attorney Dean Frieders presented proposed rules requiring all commercial and industrial buildings to submit to regular city inspections.

Current regulations leave the city reacting after buildings have severely deteriorated or even collapsed, rather than trying to prevent those issues at the outset, Frieders said.

“It is a pretty daunting problem,” he said. “Decades of city policies of either not inspecting properties or not citing and addressing progressively worsening building conditions have created a situation where many businesses have not only a poor appearance, but also may have severe deterioration that creates a public safety threat.”

Council members gave consent to move forward with the plan, and city staff will draft a request for proposals from contractors that aldermen could approve at their next meeting Aug. 25.

Under the proposal, city officials would select an outside contractor to run the inspection process. What inspections the city previously did were done by three building department employees the city placed on paid administrative leave in May. City officials have since signed separation agreements with those employees and temporarily handed over inspection services to SAFEbuilt USA.

Frieders suggested city officials create a single ordinance establishing the new inspection process, which would apply to commercial and industrial properties, but not residential ones.

SIGNS OF A GROWING PROBLEM

Frieders offered the Wurlitzer Co. Building, Otto's and the Travel Inn as proof that the city's current regulations have allowed for long-term neglect.

Parts of the Wurlitzer building, 1660 Pleasant St., collapsed in 2012. In November 2013, another floor in the building collapsed, ending DeKalb police officer Fred Busby's 27-year career.

“It's an injury which never should have happened,” Frieders said.

Busby entered the building in response to a call about possibly armed suspects inside, Frieders said. Busby was moving low to the ground on the second story toward the suspects when he fell through the floor up to his torso, while his feet dangled 15 feet above the concrete floor below.

The property owners will have to start demolishing most of the building Sept. 1 after a monthslong court battle between the city and the owners.

Otto's became an issue for the city in January, when a water pipe burst and flooded the building. After city staff entered the building at 118 E. Lincoln Highway on Feb 6., they found what looked to be years of neglect, Frieders said. He showed pictures of dangerous electrical wiring, nonfunctional bathrooms and holes in the floor and ceiling.

Owner Pat Looney has since surrendered his liquor and life-safety licenses for the buildings.

Frieders also showed pictures of the Travel Inn, which the city shut down in May after a handful of inspections revealed dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Photos shown to City Council members included stained mattresses, exposed electrical wiring and a balcony with a railing ready to collapse at the 120-room hotel at 1116 Lincoln Highway.

The owner is working with the city to repair the hotel, Frieders said, and the issue is slated for an administrative hearing Aug. 20.

The examples were enough to convince Mayor John Rey the city needed new regulations to address the properties in the city that present a threat to people who use them.

“I am considerate of those commercial owners who are giving attention to their properties, so I don't think it's universal,” Rey said. “But there are those situations where public safety standards are not being adhered to.”

CHANGES TO COME

The proposal also garnered support from other city officials. After Frieders' presentation, Police Chief Gene Lowery, Fire Chief Eric Hicks and Public Works Director T.J. Moore stated their agreement.

“We need the tools to go out and turn these properties around,” Moore said. “That's really what this is.”

The new program would be self-supporting, with an outside contractor setting inspection fees depending on the type of inspections needed, as well as a year-round inspection schedule. Primarily, inspectors would verify the property owners were complying with building and safety codes, maintaining the property and adhering to basic health and sanitation standards.

Frieders stressed property owners would be given time to address any issues inspectors found as opposed to immediately being taken to court. Any issues, he said, would be rated based on how immediate of a threat they posed to public safety.

City staff and contractors also would take pictures and create written documentation during the inspections to improve communication with business owners and monitor buildings from year to year.

"To be clear, what we are proposing is a program that is proactive," Frieders said. "That we intervene at properties when they're the early state of decline, when they're in a state where they can be fixed."

With aldermen deciding to move forward with the changes, Frieders said city staff would immediately draft a request for proposal for the inspection services. Aldermen must review the request before it went out, with the review happening as quickly as the next council meeting.

Details of the proposed changes

• A single city ordinance for property inspections that applies to occupied and vacant commercial and industrial properties

• Carried out by an outside contractor

• Contractor would set inspection fees to make the program self-supporting

• Property issues would be rated based on their urgency

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