Destroying condemned buildings costs Cape Girardeau thousands

Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The Grecian Steak House building has been condemned by the city of Cape Girardeau after a fire there on Monday. (Fred Lynch)

Nick Sakarelos was awakened in the middle of the night Monday with the call that no small business-owner ever wants to get. His restaurant, the Grecian Steak House, had caught fire.

A total loss, he was told. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage, he learned later.

"Disastrous," he said Tuesday afternoon, sitting amid the charred detritus of his three-decades-old Cape Girardeau eatery that he opened shortly after arriving in this country.

And then there's the sign.

On Monday, the city put a notice on the exterior of the building at 2002 Plaza Way West: This building condemned for occupancy by order of building supervisor.

The sign made the 57-year-old Greek immigrant sigh.

"I've got to rebuild," he said. "Because of a sparking salad-bar compressor. I hope to be open in a few months."

Sakarelos doesn't plan to have any problem with the city's condemnation process, which regulates the time frame and to what standard so-called dangerous buildings are to be rebuilt or repaired to meet city code.

Some people do.

Those people, who allow their buildings to become detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the city's residents, eventually have their buildings demolished, sometimes leaving the taxpayers to foot the bill.

Currently, $105,358 is on the city books in unpaid tax bills for 17 properties dating back to 1988, according to the city finance office. In those cases, city officials say, the property owners allowed their buildings to fall into a dangerous state of disrepair. The city then, after a lengthy process of trying to get the property owners' attention, was forced to tear down the building and issue tax bills to the property owners.

Not everyone pays, said Steve Williams, housing coordinator for the city's Planning Services Department.

A building becomes dangerous, he said, when it meets any or all of 13 determining factors, defined under the city's nuisance building statutes. A building is dangerous, for example, when it has severely leaning or buckling walls, weak floors or roofs, fire damage, unhealthy sanitation facilities and falling parts, just to name a few.

When that happens, the city sends letters to tell the landlords to meet "minimum property standards," which means, Williams said, to make the repairs necessary to provide a safe, sanitary place to live or do business.

The same rules apply to businesses and residences, he said.

There are currently 39 residences on the condemnation list, 11 of which are in what is considered south Cape Girardeau. Three are commercial buildings and the rest are single-family residences, apartment buildings and duplexes.

Of those on the list, 10 have been torn down and the city has had to pay for two of those. In the other eight cases, the property owners paid to have the buildings demolished. Twelve were repaired by the property owners and 17 are sitting idly on the list, either being repaired or ignored by the property owners, Williams said.

At its meeting Monday night, the Cape Girardeau City Council voted to issue tax bills to property owners of three buildings the city had to tear down in the last two years at 1004 Hickory Street, 422 Good Hope St., and 321 S. Ellis St. It's a crapshoot whether the city will recoup the $8,299 it paid to demolish the buildings for owners who did not comply with the ordinances.

All of those property owners originally got a letter from the city's Inspection Services office directing them to demolish their buildings or make all the repairs necessary to bring their buildings up to current code standards. Those orders, commonly called condemnations, generally are issued after a fire or when a building becomes so obviously run down that modest repairs won't remedy problems.

Newspaper ads are placed four times if the problem is ignored by property owners, said lawyer Steve Southard, who is paid by the city to act a hearing officer. He's the one who acts as arbiter when a property owner wants more time or has ignored letters and newspaper ads demanding the properties be brought up to code. A hearing date is set at city hall.

"To be up front with you, by the time it gets to me, a lot of the time they don't show up Southard said." "It's not that way all the time. Sometimes they show up and ask for more time. If they're serious, we'll give it to them."

If no one shows up, the matter is sent to the city prosecutor. Still, it's hard to track down property owners. In two cases, the property owners are widows and live in nursing homes.

"So we have to look at it on a case-by-case basis," Williams said. "Every case is going to be different."


Pertinent addresses:

2002 Plaza Way West, Cape Girardeau, MO

1004 Hickory Street, Cape Girardeau, MO

422 Good Hope St., Cape Girardeau, MO

321 S. Ellis St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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