City officials: Ensuring downtown buildings are up to code is ongoing battle


City officials say that their efforts to ensure that downtown commercial buildings are kept up to code are at times hampered by weak enforcement penalties and hard-to-find owners.

Age and physical deterioration have each played their part in creating the situation that the city now finds itself in, according to officials, with one partially collapsed structure at 620 S. Main St. forcing the indefinite closure of a two-block stretch of Main Street. There is another building at Fourth Avenue and Main Street that collapsed in February and has yet to be cleaned up.

Chief Inspector Mitzi Ruth with the Pine Bluff Inspection and Zoning Department said that her team has tried to be proactive in their building inspections.

“Downtown building collapses did not become a big issue for us up until about 10 years ago,” Ruth said. “With the local economy in a downturn, we have had multiple businesses downtown close and leave behind these old empty buildings.”

Ruth said that the result is a faster pace of deterioration for those buildings that become abandoned.

“We have been talking in our office about this issue for a good year-and-a-half,” Ruth said. “We have to look at several factors when it comes to deciding what to do about a building that is deteriorating. We are trying to look into ways to make owners more accountable. We plan to become more proactive in helping owners to keep their buildings from getting to the point where they are in danger of a collapse.”

Ruth said that her team usually coordinates its building inspections with those conducted by the Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Department.

“We look for code violations, and if they are found, a notice of violation is issued to the building owner,” Ruth said. “We ask to meet with the owner to discuss the situation. There can be instances where there are issues with a building’s foundation or the wiring may not be up to code.”

Ruth said that owners are given anywhere from 45 to 60 days to fix code violations.

“If they receive a second notice, they are required to come before the City Council Development and Planning Committee, where we try to work out a plan with them,” Ruth said.

Ruth said a frequent problem is tracing down who owns which building.

“Since the downtown area was designated as a commercial historic district, we have begun compiling a list of building owners but it is not easy,” Ruth said.

Ruth said the most common violation is broken windows that expose the building to the elements.

“This further enhances the deterioration of a structure and allows entry for people who have no business in there,” Ruth said.

Ruth said that most of the violations are remedied by building owners fairly quickly.

“Even when they comply, windows do get broken out again,” Ruth said. “So we want to follow up with them and come up with a plan to help them prevent further deterioration of their building.”

Ruth said that her department does its best to keep any expenses in the hands of the building owners.

“We try to do what we can to work with the owners so that the city doesn’t have to pay,” Ruth said. “We evaluate a situation carefully in considering whether to use taxpayers’ money to do something.”

Ruth said that, in the case of an imminent threat to public safety, the city can take care of the problem and then bill the owner.

Legal remedies

City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott said that if an owner will not reimburse the city for work done to address a dangerous building, a lien can be placed on their property.

“Arkansas Statute 14-54-903 allows us to place a lien on the property once the city performs the cleanup,” Hadden-Scott said. “This includes all administrative and collection costs. The city has 120 days from the time that the work was done to file a lien with the circuit clerk.”

Hadden-Scott said that state law also allows a common nuisance to be declared when a building owner accumulates three separate convictions in a year under the health and safety codes.

“The city doesn’t want to incur the expense of demolition and debris removal because we have limited resources,” Hadden-Scott said.

First responder concerns

Fire Chief Shauwn Howell said that his department has a strong interest in knowing as much as it can about every structure in their service area.

“The department carries out what we call district awareness walk-arounds in which we make careful notes about each building that we inspect,” Howell said. “We take note of how many stories a structure has, whether there is an attic or a basement, the location of hazardous substances stored in a structure, topographical information such as the presence of ditches and fences on a property.”

Howell said that the safety of his firefighters is dependent upon having as much accurate information as possible.

“If a structure is abandoned, we generally can’t access the inside during our inspection,” Howell said. “We have to take notes from the outside.”

Howell said that he would welcome the strengthening of laws that enact stiff penalties on building owners who refuse to comply with notices of code violations.

“There are risks that our firefighters face, and when we arrive to fight a fire, their safety is enhanced when we already know what they are walking into,” Howell said.

Pine Bluff firefighter Lt. David Curlin died in May 2010 of injuries he sustained in early January 2010 when a wall collapsed on top of him while he was fighting a fire at a building constructed in 1918 in downtown Pine Bluff.

Howell said that if a building code violation is found in the process of conducting their own inspections, the fire department contacts inspection and zoning to notify them of the situation.

Legislation

On the legislative front, Ward 1 Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr. is shepherding a proposed ordinance through the Pine Bluff City Council Public Health and Welfare Committee that would beef up penalties for building owners who refuse to bring their property up to code.

An ordinance approved in May 2013 included the enhanced penalties, but they were stripped prior to its passage.

At present, a building owner is subject to a maximum specified fine of $1,000 for failing to fix what has been declared a public nuisance.

The proposed ordinance would have a maximum fine of $1,000 or 30 days to six months of jail time or both for failing to fix a public nuisance within 31 days.

The measure is expected to be considered by the city council at its Monday, Aug. 18, meeting.