A few weeks after a roof collapsed on a downtown Orangeburg building, officials say the city is doing everything within its power to ensure the safety of buildings while also respecting the rights of property owners.
“We want property owners to take care of their own properties,” Orangeburg City Administrator John Yow said. “We have tried to be patient with persons in these tough economic times to hopefully work with them in a positive manner toward getting the buildings finished.”
Concerns about downtown building safety were underscored last month when the roof of the 100-year-old former Sifly Furniture building on Russell Street fell, sending bricks onto a truck parked below. Nobody was in the building or the truck at the time.
A notice had been sent to the property owner about the building and some steps were taken to improve the situation. City officials have said even then, the building did not fully meet code.
The city is required to comply with the International Property Maintenance Code, which requires property owners to keep their properties in “good repair, structurally sound and sanitary so as not to pose a threat to the public health, safety or welfare.”
When a property doesn’t meet the city’s standards, it notifies owners through a condemnation notice. The notice comes with an order for the owner to obtain a permit to either renovate or demolish the building within a 45-day period.
Failure to do so can result in fines upward of $1,000 a day.
There are currently four downtown Orangeburg buildings that have been condemned by the city: the former Emart building at the corner of Courthouse Square and Middleton Street, the three-story building at the corner of Amelia and Middleton streets, the former Dukes-Harley Funeral Home on Russell Street and the former I-Deal Pawnbrokers building on Russell Street near Edisto Memorial Gardens.
Yow said the condemned buildings are designated as such because one of the qualifiers is that they are “unfit for human habitation.”
“Property owners, if they don’t have a plan in place to rehabilitate in a short period of time, will not be able to put any tenants in whether it be residential or commercial and charge them rent,” Yow said.
He said it is uncertain if any buildings are in danger of collapsing like the old Sifly building. Individuals are encouraged to stay away and not enter buildings that are either condemned or have received building code violation notices.
Yow said there is always a balancing act that occurs when one looks at condemning buildings.
One is the expense that the city would incur if it were to look at tearing down these buildings and the subsequent impact on public dollars and taxpayers, he said.
Councilwoman Sandra Knotts said the recent cases of building debris and roof collapse do raise some concerns. She says the city and council may have to be more aggressive in addressing these issues.
“That was a hazard,” Knotts said, referring to the Sifly building roof collapse. “Somebody could be passing by and that would not have been good for the city and not good for the property owner.”
Knotts said the primary responsibility lies with the property owner and should the property owner not correct the problem, then discussions need to occur between the city and owner.
A look at the buildings
The old Emart building has been deemed by city law enforcement as unsafe to enter in the event of a fire.
Recently, debris from the building littered the sidewalk below, requiring the placement of yellow caution tape around it.
The city’s first letter regarding the building was sent out April 2005, asking the building’s owner to “do what is necessary to seal up this empty building.”
Another letter was sent in March 2010 to then-owner the Rev. Victoria Golding notifying her the building was in violation of the IPMC and that it needed to be renovated or demolished within 45 days or she would face daily fines of up to $500.
Finally, a condemnation notice was sent in May 2012 to the new building owner, Earl Brooks.
“The property is a blight on the community, an attraction for unwanted behavior and a breeding ground for insects and rodents,” the letter states. “The property also presents a safety hazard to children and other neighbors.”
Some of the windows of the building were boarded up, but the city noted more work needed to be done to correct the matter. A few weeks ago, the owner boarded up upper windows.
Calls placed to Brooks were not returned.
Yow said the building is of most concern to city officials.
But some of that concern has been alleviated now that the windows have been boarded up.
A section near the rear that’s boarded up with old plywood has to be redone before the city takes the caution tape down, Yow said.
The other building he is concerned about is the old Sifly building and its wall.
“The fence is around all of that to be extra safe for the public,” he said.
Building owner Mike Johnson has said he plans to demolish the building. Before the roof collapsed, he was developing plans to use the space for corporate, retail and philanthropic operations.
The old Dukes-Harley Funeral Home at 1580 Russell Street was also condemned in May 2005 and another letter was sent to the owner in June 2012.
Property owner A.J. Hutto said the building has been on the market for about 10 years at the appraised price for the land of $225,000. Though there has been interest in the property, he says there have been no serious offers.
“It is basically in sound shape except the appearance has suffered as we have not repainted it, renovated it or fixed it up,” Hutto said of the 116-year-old building. “We have tried to keep the roof tight to keep out water leaks and keep it in as much of a presentable position as we could.
“I would really like to save the old building because it was one of the original old homes.”
Hutto said he has considered a number of alternatives such as giving it to the city, universities or the nearby Episcopal church. Hutto said there have been talks about possibly putting a restaurant in the building or a museum.
The funeral home was destroyed in an October 1999 fire and has been vacant pretty much ever since.
Hutto said though vacant, the building is safe.
“It is definitely structurally sound and is not a danger to anybody,” he said.
Another condemned downtown building is the three-story, brick building at the corner of Amelia and Middleton streets.
This building has no roof and some windows are missing.
The city sent out a building inspection and code enforcement letter of condemnation April 13, 2010 to property owner Kenneth Middleton citing the building as “unsafe, unfit for human habitation and a public nuisance.”
Middleton, president and CEO of Middleton Companies, said he is currently working with an engineer to help bring the building up to code and stabilize the property.
Within about 30 days, the company will begin to help framing the interior of the building. A roof will eventually be placed on the structure.
Middleton said pedestrians should not be concerned about their safety. The roof is no longer on the building, removing the downward pressure on its walls.
“I think it would be unusual should something happen,” he said.
Middleton said he has been in close contact with the city’s building officials.
“They (the city) have been appropriately pushy,” he said. “I know what their mission is and that is to be a safe place for citizens. They want you to be in movement, to be in touch and in the progress.
“It is hard to hang on to these downtown buildings as the cost of rehab is so great. I am working in conjunction with the city to save it.”
Finally, a demolition permit was issued in February of this year for a building at the site of the former I-Deal Pawnbrokers property at 812 Russell Street.
The pawn shop was destroyed in a fire in July 2004. The building was formerly an Ace Hardware store.
Owner Lee Fersner Jr. said he has not made any definite plans for the site.
“I would like to sell it,” he said. While he got a permit to demolish a building at the site, he is still unsure.
“I am waiting for the economy to turn around and to see what we can do with it,” Fersner said.
Fersner said the structure is “fine.”
“It is a good building,” he said.
When asked why the city would issue a condemnation notice, he said, “I don’t have a clue.”
In addition, the city condemned and demolished two other downtown buildings over the past seven years.
They were 1539 Russell Street, which held Vals Beauty Salon, and 1341 Russell Street, home of Stitches.
A problem beyond Orangeburg
Municipal Association of South Carolina Main Street Manager Beppie LeGrand says vacant and deteriorating buildings are common. The causes are varied.
“Absentee landlords are what all communities have to deal with,” LeGrand said. “They own the property but they are not invested in the community as much as we would like them to be.”
Money can also be an issue, as renovations or keeping a building up to code can be costly.
But LeGrand said the Municipal Association can provide communities with architectural experts and advice on how to improve their buildings.
LeGrand said having property owners meet with city officials to reevaluate their buildings and determine what each owner can do with their property is important.
“With state funding being cut and city funding being cut, there is less and less money for grants,” LeGrand said. “Cities are looking at essential services and priorities.”
The city was hoping to get some relief from a bill introduced by state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
Senate Bill 1117, “Rehabilitation of Abandoned and Dilapidated Buildings Act,” would have allowed a municipality to bring a cause of action against the owner of a property not in substantial compliance with certain municipal ordinances.
The bill did not pass.
“We are not giving up,” LeGrand said. “We are going to continue to push for that bill.”
Warren Harley, MASC governmental affairs liaison, said condemnation can become costly for a city.
He said an informal look at about 15 cities in the state showed that they spent about $850,000 over a two-year period to demolish buildings. Of the $850,000, he said about 10 percent was recouped.
“It is a function of money for both parties,” Harley said.
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