Ocean Shores dealing with problem properties

City code updates would streamline process for tearing down, fixing up buildings

The city of Ocean Shores is crafting an update to an outdated code that would streamline the process for cracking down on derelict buildings.

Amending the 25-year-old code would give greater authority to the city’s building officials during the abatement process, when the city cleans up or tears down buildings deemed unlivable, in disrepair or dangerous.

Code updates are the first actions in an effort led by Ocean Shores Mayor Jon Martin and Building Officer Roy Simmons to deal with a problem they say has gone unchecked in recent years, causing some residents who live near nuisance buildings to express frustrations at recent city council meetings.

“To me as mayor, it’s an important part of making Ocean Shores livable,” Martin said in an interview.

According to Simmons, an amendment to city code before the city council would essentially overhaul municipal code 15.44, providing a new framework for dealing with nuisance properties. The amended code saw its first reading Monday night and will soon return for a vote.

Simmons said the old code — a 1997 uniform code on building abatement from the International Code Council — is “antiquated,” “disconnected” and gave him little legal backing during the abatement process.

As the city’s building official, one of Simmons’ duties is to identify problem buildings that aren’t up to code, dilapidated and pose a risk to public health — more than “a little out of whack,” Simmons said. That usually happens after he hears from police or residents about issues with a property. Then, after inspection, Simmons would post a notice on the building to instigate the city’s involvement with the cleanup.

Simmons said abatement is usually a last resort. Property owners are given the chance to fix property themselves or enter a work plan to finance the cleanup, Simmons said.

“I’m not coming in here to tear down a pile of houses, that’s not my idea,” Simmons said. “But we’re gonna fix them up, to make them more of an asset to the community than a danger, and if they can’t get that done we’re gonna have to take the building down.”

Ownership stays with residents during the abatement process. Property owners have a right to appeal abatement to a city board under the new code. But under the old code, the process could sometimes drag on for months, Simmons said.

Martin said people dwelling in the houses, or “squatters” would sometimes claim they owned title to nuisance houses, but title searches later proved otherwise. In some cases, Simmons said, those people have drilled into the city’s water supply beneath the house, jeopardizing water quality.

Since Simmons joined the city in August 2022, he’s started the abatement process at two different properties, one a residence on Edgewood Avenue that was recently demolished and is now an empty lot ready for new development. The process went smoothly — although it still took four to five months — because Simmons was able to reach an agreement with the owner to forego appeals.

But another nuisance property on Eridani Loop — what Martin said is an example of what’s wrong with the city’s current system — has gone unregulated for almost eight months after the city started the abatement process, Simmons said.

The property has a large tree on top of it, a six-foot wall of trash in the yard, and has seen a string of fires and rat infestations. Neighbors have reportedly felt the health effects from the house, Simmons said.

With the process delayed and the owner out of the picture at the Eridani property, the mortgage company moved in to try to salvage the house after the city listed it for abatement, which “muddied” the city’s attempts to take it down, extending problems for neighbors. The Eridani abatement is currently in its final stages, Simmons said.

In situations like this, Martin said, updates to city code would provide more “leverage” and a “more detailed step-by-step process we go through, whereas before we were bouncing all over” between different city departments.

“I believe with the new process I can get those things (buildings) to the ground in 60 days, cleaned up and ready for the next family to make a shot at putting their home on there,” Simmons said.

Costs incurred when the city fixes up or tears down a home must be reimbursed by property owners later, usually when the property is sold. However, Martin said, in the case of absentee ownership, the city occasionally loses money because the property sells for less than the price of abatement. For that purpose, the city has a fund dedicated to abatement, which currently has about $100,000, according to Martin.

Simmons said he has identified about six other properties in Ocean Shores as potential nuisances, and that those would likely be addressed under the updated code.

And code updates are only one part of the city’s crackdown on derelict properties. Martin said the city is currently working on a system to track problem properties by identifying houses where water or power has been turned off, which is generally an early sign of a problem.

“My goal is to deal with the property before it gets out of hand,” Martin said.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.