Code enforcement department dealing with bevy of homes damaged by fires

Published 6:24 pm Saturday, June 28, 2014

Fire-damaged houses can be seen all over Selma, and some have been awaiting demolition for years. This house near Live Oak Cemetery caught fire more than two years ago. (Christopher Edmunds | Times-Journal)

Fire-damaged houses can be seen all over Selma, and some have been awaiting demolition for years. This house on Lamar caught fire several months ago, and is scheduled for demolition. (Christopher Edmunds | Times-Journal)

By Christopher Edmunds

The Selma Times-Journal

Burned, abandoned houses are spreading like wildfire in Selma, and the city’s code enforcement department may be struggling to keep up.

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The Selma Fire Department has extinguished 30 house fires this year, a trend that has been increasing since 2012.

The city’s code enforcement department has taken notice of the rise in house fires. A survey coordinated by code enforcement produced a list of 27 burned properties within city limits. Of those, six have been demolished, and one project is in progress, leaving 20 fire-damaged properties standing.

Code enforcement officer Darryl Moore said his department may be overwhelmed because of the amount of work needed and lack of funding.

“Just say for instance, there are some houses we have identified in 2014. Well, there’s some we’re still dealing with from 2011 and 2012,” Moore said.

The code enforcement department has $25,000 each fiscal year to demolish structures, but Moore said it’s not enough because of the high cost of demolition.

“It depends on the square footage,” Moore said. “Lately, it’s been running anywhere between $2,500 and $4,000 to demolish a pretty good-sized house.”

Moore said a portion of the cost for demolition can be attributed to fees required to use landfills for debris.

“At one point, there were two contractors who bid on city property, and they had a place on their own property that they could dump the debris … but they now have to go over to the landfill, so they are adding that tipping fee to the invoices,” Moore said.

The City Council is currently debating whether to increase the fee from $75 to $300 per load.

Moore said to demolish an average house generates about 13 to 15 loads of debris.

City council member Greg Bjelke said the Historic Development Commission is currently working on ways to boost revenue and expedite the demolition process.

“The historic commission is working on a new fine schedule, and we’re trying to work out the details of a property court,” Bjelke said. “I think that the new fine system will be a way to bring in some more revenue to maybe hire another code enforcement officer and just bring more money into the system.”

Bjelke, along with other city council members and Selma residents, previously expressed frustration with the length of the demolition process.

“The city needs to be quicker and more vigilant and be more serious after a house burns down,” Bjelke said. “I don’t think it should go more than six months because it’s a danger to the kids, and it’s ugly for the neighborhood.”

Currently, demolition can occur anywhere from several weeks to several years after a house catches fire, according to the current procedure to demolish or repair dilapidated/unsafe structures.

Moore said one of the most common problems that delays demolition is the question of ownership and where to send notifications about the structure.

“In a lot of instances, when we go and research the property owners, the real and personal property deed sheet will have their name and address of that property on it, but no forwarding address. We run into that a lot,” Moore said. “It slows down the process a lot because if you mail the certified letter to the burned down address, there’s nobody to receive the letter.”

According to the procedure, once a house is identified as unsafe or dilapidated, the code enforcement officer prepares a file to be presented to the Office of Planning and Development and the City Council.

While the procedure states the Office of Planning and Development assesses whether or not the property needs to be demolished or rehabilitated, Moore said it doesn’t usually get involved unless the structure has some historic value.

Currently, the code enforcement department has two full-time officers and two retired police officers certified to write citations.

Moore said his department was previously smaller, but could be much larger.

“At one point, I was a one-man show,” he said. “One of Mayor [George] Evans’ goals was to have a code enforcement officer in every ward.”

Even if the department received additional funding and personnel, Moore said real progress wouldn’t be made until people start taking pride in their homes and neighborhoods.

“I wish people would take more pride in their community and I wish people would not be afraid to speak up,” he said.

Selma residents will have a chance to discuss code enforcement issues at a forum Monday at 6 p.m. at the Carl Morgan Convention Center.

Topics of discussion will include litter control, dilapidated houses, abandoned vehicles and overgrown grass.