Remedy for Blighted Buildings Eludes Officials in Steubenville
If nothing is being done with a dilapidated property, Steubenville Urban Projects Director Chris Petrossi maintains it’s not for want of trying.
The city of Steubenville has been discussing how to tackle the growing problem of dilapidated properties in town. Petrossi said inspectors have to play by very specific rules, probably the most basic of which is they can only inspect what they can see from the street.
“People seem to think we can just go into buildings, but we can’t,” Petrossi said. “If we go in, it’s trespassing. The only way we can go in is through an administrative warrant.”
But, like a search warrant, an administrative warrant requires them to have more than just a hunch that something is wrong inside. To secure one, he said the inspector has to be able to persuade a judge there’s probable cause to believe there’s an interior code violation.
“We’ve only had reason to get an administrative warrant once, for the (old) Moose building,” he said. “It was the result of a complaint from a neighboring business that water was coming in from (it) … and us being able to verify it.”
He said in most cases, the best they can do is declare a property unfit for human habitation, which puts the owner on the clock to bring it up to code or appear before Municipal Judge John Mascio in housing court. Petrossi said in most cases, “the owner either needs to make repairs on their own or sell it to someone else who will make the repairs, but in most cases it eventually ends up going on the demolition list.”
Owners who are deceased, moved away or can’t be located are also problematic.
“We know of cases where a property is occupied by the children of a deceased person and there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “We can’t cite the people living there … because it’s not in their name.”
Likewise, if the owner leaves town — even if it’s just another county in Ohio — Petrossi said there’s nothing they can do.
“While a warrant can be issued, in reality we can’t fly to some other state and pick them up, not for a fourth-degree misdemeanor,” he said. “The building in that case is going to continue to deteriorate until another owner purchases it and makes repairs or we ultimately end up demolishing it.”
And if the inspections team simply can’t locate an owner, “it ends at that point — there’s nothing further we can do,” he said.
Petrossi said that’s what happened with two of what are arguably the most glaring commercial examples in downtown: The old Moose building on South Fourth Street and the old Fort Steuben Supplies building on Adams Street. Neither owner can be located — in the case of the Moose building, it was owned by a corporation and the articles of incorporation were revoked. The inspections team has been unable to locate the owner.
“(And) that building on Adams Street — we’ve exhausted all attempts, all our resources, we cannot locate the owner, so there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “It will end up being demolished — the city has to pay for it and then place a lien on the property.”
The price tag for demolishing either of those properties is estimated in the $150,000-plus range, he said. None of it can be recouped until the property is eventually be sold for back taxes, and even then the city may not be able to get all its money back.
Petrossi said he’s not sure how many owners of dilapidated properties are untraceable, “but I know it happens a lot.”