Neighborhood eyesore: A tale of red tape, miscommunication and hopefully redemption
Jeff Sainlar I AnnArbor.com
The story of 2434 Pinecrest over the past three years, contains a number of themes: Sadness. Irony. Frustration.
But its owner, neighbors and city officials hope that the burned-out shell of a three-bedroom house on the quiet eastside Ann Arbor street soon will speak more of redemption.
All expect that the home -- destroyed by fire on Dec. 21, 2008 and left to languish -- can finally be demolished, following a series of recent meetings and conversations that cut through lingering red tape and inconsistent records.
That’ll mean the end to nearly 3 years of waiting for the conclusion to a situation that neighbor Samantha Banda calls “completely unacceptable.”
For two years, the smell was obvious. More recently, about a dozen raccoons have called it home. And she’s had to call police for trespassers in the backyard.
“I’ve got a burned-out house next door to me,” she said. “ It’s extremely frustrating.”
Ralph Welton, the city’s chief development official, says Ann Arbor soon will have a condemnation process for buildings like this -- uninhabitable but still standing as a public nuisance -- that won’t need to rely on lengthy court battles.
Jeff Sainlar I AnnArbor.com
“It should go a lot quicker,” Welton said.
Banda will welcome the change to her street. She and her husband, Daniel, have lived next door to 2434 Pinecrest for 15 1/2 years, and they’ve been waiting for three years for the removal of the visual reminder of the fire.
The home had been a rental, home to two women, who Banda said “just about lost everything in the blaze.” That included their dog, which firefighters tried valiantly to save, she added.
The home had been owned by Johnson Investments, based in Key West, Fla. Jan Hodge, a principal, is believed to have inherited the property. At the time of the fire, it was valued at about $140,000.
That was cut in half after the fire, with the city now assessing its value at about $70,000, most of that representing the value of the land.
That land is what the property’s next owner considered worth the investment when he bought it in November 2009 for $20,000.
Michael Coghlan, who lives near Saline and serves on the Ann Arbor State Bank’s Board of Trustees, is that owner, purchasing the burned-out home on Nov. 24, 2009, about 11 months after the fire.
The deal happened because the attorney of the owner approached him. The owner couldn’t afford to repair the house and had to get rid of it. Coughlan envisioned buying it, demolishing it and eventually building another house -- three bedrooms, 1.5 baths, something comfortable that fits the neighborhood -- on the lot.
He hired a contractor. He got the utilities shut off from the street. He wanted to submit building plans.
The charred and boarded-up house didn’t change. And everyone who’s passed the home over recent years may have had the same concerns as Banda: “I don’t know why the city doesn’t ride these people a little harder,” she said.
But that’s where the situation veers into irony, and Coghlan becomes another voice in the tale who expresses frustration.
While the house stood silently on Pinecrest, bearing fading “gas cut” signs and the only official activity seemed to be trimming the lawn, the house actually has been in focus for both the city and the owner.
On the city’s side, they’ve sent letters about unpaid water bills and the need to demolish the house.
Problem is, they went to the wrong person -- until about two weeks ago.
And that’s where irony bleeds into frustration for Coghlan, too, since he’s launched multiple attempts to move forward on the demolition over the last two years.
The story of 2434 Pinecrest isn’t one about an inattentive owner, or one who ran out of money or even one who was gaming the system until the economy rebounded.
It’s one of red tape and missed opportunities to connect the people who wanted to solve the problems at the house with the ones would could clear the way.
Early on, while neighbors wondered what would happen to the house, Coghlan learned about litigation against the previous owner. The deal closed without the title company flagging a water meter that had been damaged in the fire, months before he bought it.
“They said I owed $850,” he said, on a debt that he felt should have been covered before his purchase. That took months to resolve.
He paid the property taxes, but his contractor learned about a back tax bill that prevented a permit.” Sidewalk repair work had, at some point, been added to the bill.
“My contractor and demolition guy have been engaged for 14 months,” Coghlan said. “They’ve been to the city five times with paperwork.
“Every single time there’s a roadblock.”
By the end of November, Coghlan’s frustration peaked.
“I did this as a favor -- and it might sound corny -- for an old lady in Florida, and it turned into a quasi-nightmare for me,” Coghlan said. “I spent so much more time on this than I ever envisioned.”
The trigger in November came right after Thanksgiving when a letter from city officials arrived, giving him until Dec. 7 to get the work done.
The inaction at house, it became clear, had not been ignored by the city, either.
To Coghlan, it was his first communication. To the city, it was a final warning.
Coghlan didn’t understand why he was challenged over 30 months of inactivity, when city assessor records showed he didn’t even own the house for that long. His attorney had been giving the city updates early in his ownership, and no letter was sent to the lawyer, either.
That letter with the Dec. 7 deadline set off a chain of events that’s resulting in solutions.
Coghlan got an audience with Welton, the city’s building inspector. They learned that not all city records had been updated after the sale. Warnings had gone to the previous owner’s address, even after the sale, and a $118 water bill in the water utilities department - also not in his name, but affecting the property - kept staff in the building department from issuing permits.
“There was no way to know there was this water bill out there,” Coghlan said. “At the end of the day, that held up this whole thing.”
But, he stresses, the pair got it done. And the demolition contractor is just waiting for final inspections on the utility shutoffs.
The house, he said, will come down. As he’s planned for years now.
It’s a move that will affect Banda. She said she’s never wanted anything but the person who owned it to remove the eyesore.
“We live in a lovely neighborhood,” she said. “I love it. It’s kind of sad that some things are allowed the fall through the cracks.”
And the demolition of the house speaks to something important for the community, too. This is a tale of misaligned municipal records, but a citywide solution accompanies it in the new measures that building department staff will be able to use when vacant eyesores infect neighborhoods.
“Hopefully, this will be the last time we got a lot of these sorts of complaints,” said Welton, the city’s building inspector.
Even so, he estimates a half-dozen other structures in the city will require fast action due to their condition. They’re the types of buildings that, previously, could take many years to demolish through the courts.
The payback, at least one elected official said, will be felt by all taxpayers.
“Neighborhood deterioration is (prevented) by maintenance of buildings and structures,” said City Council Member Steve Kunselman. “If they start to deteriorate, there’s less incentive for owners and occupants to do the same. It creates a spiraling downward of property values.”