City demands that owners of substandard Grand Forks buildings repair them
When Janelle Olson and her 83-year-old mother have visited Grand Forks in recent summers to check on family-owned property, they’ve found rotting groceries, empty alcohol bottles and homeless people living in the vacant buildings.
“It’s sad. My mother can’t stand to look at it like that,” said Olson, who lives in Mesa, Ariz.
Olson’s mother, Colleen Varnson, who also lives in Mesa, is one of three property owners with upcoming hearings before Grand Forks City Council regarding substandard buildings they own in the city.
The seven buildings being discussed in upcoming meetings are more than what the council normally sees in most years, according to Inspections Department records.
However, many buildings have been addressed without City Council assistance each year, said Bev Collings, city building and zoning administrator.
Buildings are brought to council to be considered for demolition or repair by the city when property owners continually have not made progress on repairing the buildings to bring them up to code, she said.
According to city code, some qualities of substandard structures include: dangerously leaning walls, inadequate fire escape, severe fire or wind damage and other unsafe dilapidation or decay.
The last time substandard structures were brought to City Council was in 2008, when two buildings were addressed, according to Inspections Department records. One substandard building was brought to the council in 2007.
When the city demolishes a building, the cost of the demolition is special assessed back to the property and then must be paid off by the property owner, Collings said.
There aren’t set rules on how long a building is considered substandard before it reaches the point of being considered for city demolition.
“It really doesn’t matter the timeframe,” Collings said. “It’s more a lack of progress than it is a time period. It’s more of a case-by-case basis depending on the level of hazard it is.”
For example, a vacant building near a school would be of a higher priority than one on the outskirts of town because it could be more hazardous for children, she said.
Of the seven properties being addressed by the council in upcoming meetings, one is a small shed on South Washington Street, owned by Craig and Sherrie Holmquist, of West Fargo. Five are buildings owned by Varnson in north Grand Forks, and one is a house owned by Avron Properties on North Sixth Street.
Relief for family
In most cases, property owners are willing to work with the Inspections Department to either repair or demolish substandard buildings themselves, so the buildings don’t reach the council, Collings said.
People often don’t know how or are unable to take care of their substandard buildings before the Inspections Department steps in, she said.
In Varnson’s case, legal issues within her family about who owns the properties in question prevented her from hiring someone to demolish the buildings, Olson said.
“There’s not really anything my mother can do,” she said.
Part of why Varnson’s buildings fell to shambles is that they were never repaired after the flood of 1997, Olson said. “The flood took an awful lot out of them.”
Because of the family legal problems, it’s a relief to have the city address the buildings, Olson said.
Not enough time
But not all property owners want the city to step in.
Craig Holmquist said he wasn’t given enough time by the city to bring his shed up to code.
“I don’t know why they can’t just wait,” Holmquist said. “It’s not a cheap little shed to tear down, it’s expensive.”
The shed has a water and sewer line running to it, which would make tearing it down more costly, Holmquist said. No one has used the building since 1997, so he doesn’t think that it is hazardous, he said.
The first letter sent to the Holmquists from the city regarding this property was July 8, 2010, according to city documents.
In the case of the Avron Properties house, Rodney Avron had been renting the house without proper licenses, according to city documents. The house has not had a valid certificate of occupancy since 2005 or a valid rental license since 2008.
Because of substandard electrical issues, that include possibly faulty wiring, power was shut off to the house this spring, according to city documents.
The Inspections Department had been trying to work with Avron on the house since 2010 before considering it for city demolition this year.
A phone number listed for Avron was disconnected.
The public hearings at City Council for structures at 419 S. Washington St., owned by the Holmquists, and 507 North Sixth St., owned by Avron, are Monday.
The hearings for 1033 N. Fifth St., 1105 N. Fifth St., 1111 N. Fifth St., 1101 N. Fifth St. and 514 11th Ave. N., are Sept. 2.
Property owners will have 30 days after their public hearing to either demolish their building or repair it in compliance with city code. After that, the city will either demolish or repair the building.
On the web: For the exact law on what is considered substandard, visit Grand Forks city code at www.bit.ly/1qoyyaz, and click on Chapter X, Article 4.