Neighborhood nuisance: What exactly is condemnation and how do municipalities use it?
Blaine Dukart, a building inspector for the City of Dickinson, walked The Dickinson Press through the process of how a home is condemned and brought before the city commission for a vote to demolish property after an owner has failed to comply with city code.
DICKINSON — The process has been the focal point of movies, books and television dramas. Some malevolent threat of condemnation is used by energy companies and overzealous landsmen as a negotiating tactic to acquire land. While fiction can be grossly overdecorated, the reality of condemnation is a far more direct process in North Dakota.
It begins with the condemning authority, usually a municipality, sending multiple notices to a resident to rectify a problem with their property. From there, a Notice of Intent is sent and without remedy could end with a property owner having their property ordered destroyed. The process can be a political hot button issue, but it's a reliable tool for many municipalities use to deal with unresolved safety hazards.
Building Inspector Blaine Dukart walked The Dickinson Press through the process of condemnation, how and why it’s important for the city and its residents.
For the past two years, Dukart has worked for the city’s Building and Codes Department, and as part of his job duties, he inspects properties and enforces the City of Dickinson's Municipal Code in an effort aimed to "protect the health, safety and welfare” of the community.
The City of Dickinson recently held a special meeting on condemnation, dealing with three different properties in town. Dukart noted that these public hearings are conducted yearly. In the past, the city dealt with issues in "ebbs and flows," mainly due to low staffing and other circumstances, such as owners receiving permits to make improvements then failing to do so. The process took a few years to get structured before condemnations began for some properties.
However, the city says it does try to review all options before choosing demolition, he said, noting that with more staffing now present, the city is working toward keeping this process limited to periodic needs.
“Ideas are not permits. So they can say that they have ideas and concepts for what they want to do to it, but that does not bring it into compliance. It needs to be permitted to do a renovation and bring it back into compliance,” Dukart said. “That comes to the point of exhausting all of our efforts — every effort to make sure that the owner understands where things are and what their options are. By the time we exhaust our efforts, it’s been a pretty long period of time.”
What is condemnation?
In the first paragraph of Chapter 7 of the Dickinson Municipal Code, it states, “For the purpose of this ordinance, any building or structure which has any or all of the conditions or defects hereinafter described shall be deemed to be a dangerous building, provided that such conditions or defects exist to the extent that the life, health, property or safety of the public or its occupants are endangered.” Dukart noted that first paragraph is “the key,” to understanding what constitutes condemnation within city limits.
Dukart noted that there are 14 different elements under the condemnation process. However, three of them stick out to Dukart as the top vindications for condemnation.
The first main component that deems a property as a public nuisance is, “Whenever the building or structure has been so damaged by fire, wind, earthquake or flood, or has become so dilapidated or deteriorated as to become (a) an attractive nuisance to children; (b) a harbor for vagrants, criminals or immoral persons; or as to (c) enable persons to resort thereto for the purpose of committing unlawful or immoral acts,” according to city code.
Dukart noted that the second component to determine condemnation on a property is stated in city code as, “Whenever a building or structure, because of inadequate maintenance, dilapidation, decay, damage, faulty construction, or arrangement, inadequate light, air or sanitation facilities, or otherwise, is determined by the health officer to be unsanitary, unfit for human habitation or in such a condition that is likely to cause sickness or disease.”
The third main reason for condemnation, according to Dukart, within the City of Dickinson reads as, “Whenever any portion of a building or structure remains on a site after the demolition or destruction of the building or structure or whenever any building or structure is abandoned for a period in excess of six months so as to constitute such building or portion thereof an attractive nuisance or hazard to the public.”
How does condemnation work?
A home becomes a nuisance after several complaints have been called into the city, police and fire departments, etc., Dukart continued. From there, the city will make its own observations of the property to see if the property is in compliance with city code. The building inspector will go out and determine the legitimacy of those complaints.
If the structure is out of compliance, Dukart said the city will contact the owners to gain access to the property to determine what the “structural integrity” is, by performing a thorough inspection — which includes a file of documentation of time stamped photographs.
The city code does address what will happen if properties are out of compliance, dilapidated or run down, he added.
“A perfect example is (when) the water is shut off on a property, it becomes uninhabitable. And from that phase forward, we move into condemnation if there are structural issues with it. So we request to do an inspection of the property to see if it’s habitable and then we move on from there,” he said, adding that they will placard the building.
After a period of approximately 30 days, the city sends out a letter of demolition to the owner(s). From there, the owners have 30 days from the time that letter was received to bring their building up to code and can contact the city to see what options are available. This process can involve more than just a letter or two, Dukart said, adding that they will sometimes send out five to seven letters for property maintenance in the beginning stages.
“By the time they get the letter of demolition, it’s already past tense. They’ve already had all the opportunities, most likely for years, to do renovations to it,” Dukart said. “And we send out the letter of demolition because we’ve exhausted all our efforts to bring these properties back into compliance.”
A hearing before the Dickinson City Commission along with the city attorney is required to take place thereafter. The public, including the property owners, are welcome to attend those hearings, Dukart added.
In a follow-up article, The Press covers the latest condemnation hearing and highlights the legal proceedings that ensue.