Demolition of vacant properties halts when Augusta budget runs dry

The city has burned through $500,000 appropriated last year for the demolition of abandoned properties, which means such work will cease until the new budget year begins in January.

The money funded about 100 demolitions between October and May, helping the city chip away at its growing list of abandoned and neglected buildings.

Although the city is making progress, some say it is fighting a losing battle unless officials come up with a better plan.

A year ago, the list of problem properties had more than 300 structures. As of last week, the number was about 280. Of those, about 160 are open “public officer” cases – structures the city is seeking to demolish. The other cases are winding their way toward that status.

The process can take years.

About 23 of those cases date back to at least 2006, when the Licensing and Inspection Department started tracking these properties electronically.

The process often starts when properties are cited with repeated code violations, said Pam Costabile, the city’s code enforcement manager. Often the owners are unresponsive or absent, and the property begins to deteriorate. Trespassers might break in to the empty building, and general neglect leads to leaking roofs and structural damage that make a property uninhabitable.

Costabile said the route to establish who owns the property and to attain a court order for demolition can be derailed or detoured at any step.

“It could be a million things,” she said. “A lot of these on this list we started with the old owner and now there is another owner.”

Sometimes officials go through the process to tear down a building only to have the owners deed it to someone else or donate it to the Augusta Land Bank Authority in the last hour.

When that happens, Costabile said she tries to preserve her budget and lets the Land Bank Authority pay for its own demolitions.

Some buildings are not torn down right away because they are larger and thus more expensive to demolish. With the number of properties on the list, Costabile tries to spend no more than $4,000-$5,000 per demolition.

“There is one we want to tear down right now on (Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), but it’s too expensive,” she said. “We don’t have the money.”

Sometimes, the owners pay for the demolitions.

This week, the owner of the old Southern Milling Co. property on Twiggs Street began such work. The old flour and feed mill, built in the 1850s, has been on the city’s list of problem properties since a fire in September 2008.

Owner Edgar Matthews said the city has wanted the site demolished and cleaned up for a while, but ongoing litigation after the fire prevented him from taking any action.

Matthews said he had asbestos removed from the mill, but that was all until this month, when a crew started taking it apart.

“We’ve been systematically taking it down and salvaging what we can, bricks mostly,” he said. “We estimated three weeks ago it will take six to eight months.”

But even as the city accomplishes one mission by demolishing old buildings, other problems emerge.

Months after the dump trucks haul debris away, nature re-establishes its foothold. Trees, weeds, vines and waist-deep grass fill many of the lots where buildings once stood.

Augusta Commission member Bill Fennoy can point out dozens of ramshackle houses within a couple of blocks of his home on Dugas Street. Many aren’t even on the list of homes to be demolished. But he thinks the neglected vacant lots are almost as bad.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I am open to suggestions,” said Fennoy, who is frustrated by the blight and the city’s inability to maintain empty lots or force the owners to do so. “The question is do you tear down an abandoned building to create a jungle?”

Fennoy said demolishing the buildings is only a small portion of what needs to be done to redevelop Augusta’s crumbling inner city. He says it is heartbreaking to look at what were once decent, working-class neighborhoods that are now riddled with boarded-up eyesores and overgrown empty lots.

“People down here have been dealing with these issues for 50 years,” he said.

He points to the redevelopment on Pine Street, off Laney-Walker Boulevard, as a success story to be replicated on a grander scale.

He said the efforts of the city and other public and private entities working to rehabilitate other parts of the city, while laudable, are too haphazard and uncoordinated to have a sustained impact.

“The city really needs some kind of plan to address this,” he said. “The problem is we don’t have a plan.”

Augusta makes progress in taking down blighted properties
Augusta struggles to keep up with growing number of abandoned properties
'Mothball’ permits aren’t solutions for all blighted sites in Augusta
City gets politics out and removes blight
Plan would revamp blighted inner city
Harrisburg group tries to fight crime by fixing houses
Long waits typical for demolition

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