Demolition proposal raises fears

January 09, 1995|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

A City Council member and several members of Westminster's Historic District Commission say they're worried about a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for the city to tear down dilapidated buildings.

But sponsors of the proposal say demolition would be a last resort to deal with property owners who have not repaired buildings that are unfit for human habitation.

The council is scheduled to vote tonight on the ordinance and on proposed amendments requiring a review by the Historic District Commission and council approval before the city could go to court to force the demolition of a derelict building.

Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein, author of the amendments, said she still has reservations, "based on government giving itself the right to destroy buildings owned by private citizens." She said commission and council reviews are the best safeguards she felt she could get in the ordinance.

The ordinance was drafted after Charles Street neighbors complained last year about a boarded-up house and trash piled on the front porch of another house on their street.

"People in the neighborhood aren't too happy, and I don't blame them," said Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan, co-sponsor of the ordinance.

The city's historic commission has agreed to review city proposals for court orders to demolish buildings, but some members expressed fears about how the authority would be used.

"This thing really scares me. It's like Big Brother is going to be watching you," said commission member Carol Wiskeman.

If a garage is in disrepair, the city may try to demolish it, she said.

"But that garage could fall on your property," countered commission Chairman Dean Camlin.

Commission member Coni Humphrey said she favors the ordinance as a way of protecting residents' health and safety, but fears it could be used on historic buildings.

"This is my wish, that they would underline the ordinance to preserve things rather than even mention the word demolition," she said.

Mr. Yowan said the ordinance "has zero to do with historic buildings." He said city government needs authority to act on buildings that are creating neighborhood blight because the county Health Department and the Permits and Inspections Bureau haven't acted.

"That's the crux of the problem," Mr. Yowan said. "We've gone that route many times, and many times the Health Department didn't want to get involved, and the county didn't want to get involved."

Charles L. Zeleski, assistant director of environmental health with the Health Department, said the department can act only when it finds a health hazard.

Garbage piled on a front porch is a health hazard because it provides food for rats, Mr. Zeleski said, but a washing machine on a porch isn't.

Ralph Green, head of the Permits and Inspections Bureau, could not be reached for comment last week.

Councilman Stephen R. Chapin Sr., who co-sponsored the ordinance, said he is convinced that the proposed ordinance has adequate safeguards to prevent abuse of power.

The city wouldn't act unless the property owner has failed to repair his building and has let it "just sit there and be a blight on the community," Mr. Chapin said.

The council will meet at 7 p.m. at City Hall, Emerald Hill Drive.

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