City looks at demolition of dilapidated properties

Published 10:26 pm Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Not every old house in Natchez is historic. Some have a new coat of paint in their future. For others, a bulldozer is a more finite solution.

If a private building becomes a hazard to public health, the city can go through a process to demolish the building.

It’s a subject Alderman James “Ricky” Gray is passionate about.

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“I’ve got people (in my ward) worried their house is going to burn down because they’re worried about the abandoned house behind them catching fire,” Gray said Tuesday. “It’s a dangerous situation.”

In fact, 11 properties are slated to be demolished in the near future, Building Official Paul Dawes said.

His office has issued permits to seven of those owners to demolish their own property. The remaining four are proving to be a problem.

It’s not always easy to get run-down, dilapidated houses either fixed or torn down, he said.

One hurdle is finding out who owns a house.

“If you’re dealing with a property where the owner says, ‘It’s mine, I’m responsible for it,’ things usually move along,” Dawes said. “It’s when you have an out-of-county owner that things become a problem.”

Dawes’ office first sends the owners a letter, asking them to fix their property. If he sees no action in 30 days, he sends them another saying the city will demolish their building if they don’t fix it or tear it down themselves.

Usually, the second letter does the trick, Dawes said. But it’s tough to warn the owner to fix a problem if you can’t find him.

“For example, (of the owners we’re trying to contact), one owner is in Michigan, one is in Alexandria and anther, they’re contesting the ownership,” Dawes said.

Often, there’s a question among heirs as to who owns the property and what to do with it, he said.

If the owners don’t fix the problems or demolish the building themselves within 30 days or so, the city will then demolish it themselves.

That’s expensive, and the owners don’t always reimburse the city for the cost, Dawes said.

The average cost for demolition is about $2,500, he said. One demolition in November 2004 cost $7,079.

That’s money the city rarely sees again, Dawes said. Although the cost, plus 25 percent, is tacked onto the owner’s taxes, it rarely gets paid.

“Only twice out of 200 cases or so over 10 years have I seen the city paid back,” Dawes said.

Dilapidated houses can bring down property values and clutter up a city, City Planner Dennis Story said.

But if a house is just abandoned and does not pose a health hazard to the public, there’s not much the city can do, Story said.

“”If it’s not falling down or falling in, there’s nothing we can really do,” Story said.