The May 20 defeat of Augusta’s latest sales tax referendum had a hidden downside: cutting proposed funding for one of the city’s most pervasive problems.
Planning and Development Director Melanie Wilson said she pushed for the first time to include funds for demolitions in the tax package, about $4 million that likely would have leveled nearly all the known derelict, abandoned and other nuisance properties in Richmond County.
The owners of these former homes and businesses have died, disappeared or simply given up, leaving behind a trail of unpaid taxes, vandalism, disintegration and overgrowth, accompanied by drops in neighborhood property values and a lack of interest from developers.
“If I was a businessperson coming in a new area, I don’t think I’d like (that),” said hairstylist Jackie Boone, who recently moved her shop, Naturally Jack’d, to Eve Street in Harrisburg.
Boone said she’d seen construction workers she thought were fixing up a Jenkins Street duplex. A few months later, the windows are boarded and a spray-painted skull and crossbones warns all not to enter.
Harrisburg, a former mill village, has its share of blight and abandoned properties, but the problem spares none but the newest of Augusta neighborhoods.
In all, 283 properties on 148 different streets across six ZIP codes make up the current are at some stage of the lengthy legal process required to tear them down, according to a list provided by Augusta’s code enforcement manager, Pam Costabile.
Progress toward more demolitions has been made, though the number is up from a year ago when there were 160 open cases. But without additional funding, the demolitions will stop after crews complete about 36 demolitions authorized for $200,000 by the Augusta Commission in March.
The demolitions, Phase 1 of what Wilson said was a $3 million undertaking to rid Augusta of blighted properties, are set to begin this week, according to Rob Sherman, the deputy director of the department’s development division.
Among the worst areas are the historic Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods.
Tony McClendon was cutting grass Friday at a newer home in Laney-Walker’s Hopkins Street, which has five houses on the demolition list. He said he’s grateful he lives in the Pepperidge subdivision, where only a handful of bank-owned properties are in serious disrepair.
“When I’m down here in the city, it’s ridiculous how many buildings are” nuisance properties, he said. “They’re not even boarded up. Kids come through here.”
Demolishing even the smallest building can prove costly, as each site must be tested for and cleared of hazardous material such as asbestos, which is common in older structures, Wilson said.
The typical structure costs from $5,000 to $7,000 to demolish, while larger homes can cost $15,000, she said.
Burned houses require even more work because hazardous materials must be removed by hand, bagged and disposed of differently, Wilson said.
As the cleared lots increase, “the hope is that you get enough synergy going in, having a big enough area demoed” that a developer might purchase the
site from the city land bank and return it to the tax rolls, she said.
The biggest challenge for the department is tracing ownership of the properties, which might have been passed down to heirs by owners without a will.
Even if the city completes the 283 demolitions, it has already identified 250 more structures likely to require action.
Despite the addition of code enforcement staff, it is often difficult to force an absent or impoverished property owner to make improvements to keep a property from deteriorating further, particularly in a state friendly to property rights.
“The problem is people having the money to deal with it,” Wilson said. “If no funds are available, you’re just citing someone and taking them to court.”
One of those properties could be a Parkway Drive residence that Isaiah Daniels has watched deteriorate since his elderly neighbor’s death several years ago.
At first, her heirs came by occasionally to cut the grass, but now the hedges have grown into trees and “at night, you can see all different kinds of critters in the backyard,” he said.
The property has already been through one tax sale – Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick’s approach when taxes are unpaid – but Daniels said he hasn’t seen anyone tend to the property in years, besides a city crew that cut the grass once.