Problem of blight in the ETJ not easily resolved

May. 01, 2013 @ 07:56 PM

South Henderson neighbors wanting relief from blighted structures feel caught.

They live in the extra-territorial jurisdiction between the city and the county. In terms of zoning enforcement, it often becomes a no man’s land.

More than a dozen run-down homes, some of them burned-out ramshackle ruins, blend with property overgrowth, trash and abandoned cars, continuing to be a nuisance not abated after years of effort.

City and county department leaders agree there are complications to enforcing zoning rules to put property owners to the task of properly caring for their part of the neighborhood.

The bottom line on enforcement, complicated or not, pivots on funding. Cleanup and demolition can be costly, especially when owners have abandoned their lot.

As a boy, Elijah Nicholson knew of the South Henderson neighborhood when it was built up. He says that was too long ago to remember who lived in places like the burned-to-ruins house on Saint Matthew’s Street.

“Kids have been in there playing,” Nicholson said. “They call it the haunted house. They’re curious. They get in all of those places.”

Troubling to neighbor Elbert Ouzts, who addressed the city council recently, is nearby L.B. Yancey Elementary School gathers hundreds of children to an area that should definitely be made safer.

“Isn’t there some kind of law against having unsafe buildings so close to schools?” Ouzts said. “The kids are out more, walking in the warmer weather. That’s a big concern of mine.”

Nicholson and Ouzts said that criminal activity is also attracted to abandoned structures. The Vance County Sheriff’s Office responded and cleaned up some of that problem.

According to Nicholson, the blighted structures number 19. Ouzts said that sounds right, or maybe a few deeper in the woods from what can be seen from active roadways.

Nicholson pointed out the lay of the South Henderson ETJ land runs from Skenes Avenue south, taking in the southern part of Nicholas Street, Saint Matthews Street, part of Old Epsom Road, and frames the neighborhood around the elementary school.

He said there are 10 blighted structures on Saint Matthews, four or more on the southern end of Nicholas, a couple on Wilkins Lane, a couple more on Old Epsom and at least one on King Street.

Neighbor Nancy Townes said the neglect of at least some of those homes dates back to the 1970s when she moved in to a newly stick-built home she keeps up very well.

Some of the ruins and trash heaps in the neighborhood are eyesores that should not be put up with, she said.

“People shouldn’t have to drive by there and look at that filth,” she said.

City Manager Ray Griffin said while the city has jurisdictional authority over zoning enforcement matters in the ETJ, there is no funding and therefore no enforcement activity by the city. And there will be none in the forseeable future.

“We do not do minimal housing compliance in the ETJ,” Griffin said. “We can not at this time justify use of city tax dollars for work beyond city limits, particularly considering our huge backlog for in-city demolitions.”

Vance County Planning Department Director Jordan McMillen said the county knows of the problem, and that it needs to be cleaned up.

McMillen had taken photos of the area, showing them to members of the board of commissioners several years ago. They know of the situation, and have applied for grant funding for community revitalization.

“I agree that the area does need to be cleared out. It is a very bad location,” McMillen said. “I think certainly it’s something that needs to be known to code enforcement.”

County Manager Jerry Ayscue said what he would like to see is a sit-down meeting involving city leaders, residents of the community, possibly law enforcement officials and his county staff to address all of the issues involved.

“We have got to sit down and start the dialogue, to see what the needs are,” Ayscue said. “The bottom line is that it will be a multi-year process. It includes applying for a community revitalization grant. Even after getting one, the compliance processes are notoriously drawn out.”

Ayscue said compliance, which involves communication with property owners and working on each property situation through legal steps, could take 12 to 18 months.

McMillen added there continues to be complications over what code, city or county, takes precedence. The county has its Ordinance 33 on minimum standards for housing that could be applied.

McMillen and Ayscue said the county is willing to do what it can.

“We will respond according to the ordinances we have,” McMillen said.

Finding a budget for any needed work is the most critical barrier, city and county leaders agree. It has been several years since the last grant to county departments came in for eliminating nuisance structures.

Ayscue said the community revitalization grant program is finishing up work around Julia Avenue across Raleigh Road from the St. Matthews neighborhood. When finished, another neighborhood target area could be carved out for the next award from that grant program. Julia is also in the ETJ, Ayscue added.

Ayscue said there is a “scattered improvement” grant program to clean up some individual property blight problems countywide.

There is very little funding available, however. Looking at the upcoming fiscal year budget for the county, little or none is there for blight cleanup beyond a small amount set aside for grant matching.

The Julia grant would have to be closed out before the next grant is applied for, he added, referring to the process of finishing all reporting and to return any unused grant money. There can only be one such grant program in operation in a county at a time.

Ouzts said he doesn’t understand why there is a problem between the city and county in getting started with the action needed.

“Why can’t someone take ownership of the problem?” Ouzts said.

“This is the ETJ,” Nicholson said. “This area never has anything done — nothing.”


Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.