Danville considers changing vacant-building ordinance

Danville considers changing vacant-building ordinance

DANVILLE — Landlord Jerry Hawker has purchased and renovated 10 vacant buildings in Danville but hasn't invested in any new properties since the city passed its vacant-building ordinance two years ago.

That may change now that the city is considering revising the ordinance, based on suggestions from the Danville Area Landlord Association, of which Hawker is a member.

According to Hawker, the ordinance has discouraged some from buying vacant properties and rehabilitating them, partly because it requires that rehabilitation be complete within one year.

Hawker said some of the vacant buildings he's purchased have taken three to four years to rehab. For small investors, he said, one year is sometimes impossible. In the last two years, Hawker, other members of the Danville Area Landlord Association and other property owners have criticized that aspect and other parts of the ordinance.

The city's push for a vacant-building ordinance grew out of the frustration of watching more residential and commercial buildings falling into disrepair, many to the point that the city has had to step in and demolish them for safety purposes. So the city created the ordinance to motivate owners of vacant properties to either rehabilitate or demolish them and also to discourage people from buying vacant properties without a plan for rehab. The ordinance requires buildings that meet the definition of a vacant structure to register them with the city and then submit plans for either demolition or rehabilitation.

Jim Meharry, inspection and enforcement manager for the city, said not every building or house that's empty is a vacant structure. According to the ordinance, a vacant building is one that's unoccupied and also meets at least one of the following: it's unsecured, secured by other than normal means, unsafe, has code violations or is illegally occupied.

If progress is not made toward either demolition or rehab, the property owner must pay an annual fee of $500, and the original ordinance requires rehabilitation within 365 days.

Earlier this year, the landlord association spent about two months reviewing the city's ordinance and then submitted its recommended changes to Mayor Scott Eisenhauer.

The city's Corporation Counsel David Wesner said some of the association's recommendations have been incorporated into a revision of the ordinance, which the city council's public services committee will consider at its meeting Tuesday. The committee meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the municipal building, 17 W. Main St., Danville.

Meharry said the ordinance has been a work in progress, but it has made a difference and provides a way for city inspectors to monitor the vacant buildings in the city and keep on top of them. He said prior to 2009, there was no system for identifying the vacant structures and no benchmarks for property owners to meet. Now, he said each year, there are 10-15 success stories of formerly vacant structures that are now productive rentals or businesses.

"It's been beneficial," said Meharry, who is fine with the proposed changes to the ordinance, although he said the department never really pressed the 365-day issue as long as a property owners had permits and were making progress on rehabilitation.

Public Development Director John Heckler said one problem, however, is with vacant-building owners who really do not have the means to fix up a deteriorating structure.

"It is a challenge," he said.

Members of the landlord association like Hawker may have the means but may not have the means to get it all done within 365 days, especially if they're working on more than one. Hawker said sometimes an investor buys three to four at a time from the bank. The first thing, he said, is making sure there's a good roof and they're secure. But those improvements and others, like windows, take money and that can take time, he said.

Hawker said one of his properties at 616 Kimball St. is an example of a house that's taken him a few years to rehab. He said it had been vacant for a while when he bought it.

"And we have been working on it as the money comes in. We didn't want to go out and borrow a whole lot of money. It's been about a three-year process on that house, and we're getting very close," Hawker said.

Instead of stipulating 365 days, Wesner said the language has been changed to rehabilitation should be complete within "a reasonable period commensurate with the condition of the building." That makes it more flexible, and allows for more time if a building is in a more serious state of deterioration compared to a building that would only need plywood over the windows and a new door.

Hawker said now hopefully more small investors will be encouraged to purchase vacant buildings and fix them up as they can.

But on the flip side, eliminating an exact time limit, also gives city officials more flexibility to push for compliance within less than a year on structures that don't require a lot of work. Wesner said the time frame modifications are the biggest amendments to the ordinance, but there are some other minor modifications such as striking the requirement that snow be removed from around vacant buildings. Wesner said the city can't force that at other properties in the city, so it will be taken out of the vacant-building ordinance.

Hawker said he and other members of the association are pleased that their changes are being incorporated.

"It really shows to me that the city and the landlords have made one big step toward getting along," he said.

Heckler said Hawker and John Cunningham, another association member, were very helpful in working on the changes. He said when the ordinance was originally approved, city officials knew it would be a work in progress.

"We knew we would have to periodically go back and change it, and the landlords gave us good suggestions," Heckler said.

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