House next door vexes commissioner

Landlord says 'blight' is a matter of opinion

Augusta Commission member Matt Aitken says he knows more about nuisance properties now than when he was elected a year ago.

Aitken went to Magistrate Court on Thursday to testify against a neighbor cited for poor property maintenance. It's Aitken's third time in court over the issue.

"When I got into this, as the city started moving forward with chronic nuisance property, it got to the point where I can see what people are feeling," Aitken said.

This year, Augusta studied -- but failed to craft -- a chronic nuisance property ordinance to fine landlords for the criminal behavior of tenants. The city's legal department said such an ordinance would be unconstitutional in Georgia.

In Aitken's situation, there are no tenants -- the house is unoccupied -- but resolving the nuisance has still been frustrating, he said.

Augusta inspector Larry Lariscy said Starkey Flythe, who owns the property at 603 Telfair St., is a habitual code violator. Lariscy has cited the property for overgrown vegetation and poor building maintenance and gone to court eight times.

"It's been an issue for years," Lariscy said. "He's been in violation of property codes and circumvented prosecution by demanding a jury trial in State Court."

State Court has never set a date to hear the case, Lariscy said.

Flythe did not appear at Thursday's Magistrate Court hearing but did accept a phone interview with The Augusta Chronicle . He said that his property might not look as good as Aitken's but that he doesn't think it's a nuisance.

"So much of this is just your personal opinion," Flythe said.

Flythe said he didn't go to court because he was sick with the flu. Magistrate Judge H. Scott Allen issued an arrest warrant against Flythe for failure to appear. Flythe paid a $1,000 bond Friday and was not arrested.

Aitken said fighting chronic nuisance property in Augusta is not a dead issue, despite this year's setbacks. He thinks if judges would levy maximum fines against violators, property owners would take compliance more seriously. He has spoken to state Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, about changing state law to allow cities to adopt nuisance property ordinances.

Lori Davis, a Harrisburg resident who has championed a chronic nuisance property law for Augusta, also wants to see state law changed.

"It would be a huge weapon for this city," she said.

Commissioner Joe Bowles, who headed the committee tasked with developing a chronic nuisance property law for the city, said that until state law changes, there's no way to move forward with such an ordinance.

"It doesn't mean we need to stop trying to deal with nuisance properties, though," he said.

Bowles went to court Thursday to learn more about the process that Augusta residents face.

"Sometimes people say code enforcement isn't doing what it should or the judge is not doing what he should," he said. "But often, people manipulate the legal system to their advantage and the judge can't do anything about it. Right now I'm working to figure out what we can and can't do."

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