Renovo residents vow legal fight after rowhouses declared unsafe
RENOVO — Getting the news that the entire row of houses on the 100 block of 14th Street will be posted unsafe or worse, residents of those houses promised they would go to court to stop from being forced out.
Residents knew it was coming, so nearly all of the people who own properties on 14th Street attended Wednesday night’s borough council meeting to hear their fate.
Renovo’s Property Ordinance Officer and Building Code Enforcement Officer Victor Marquardt didn’t mince his words.
He said he would post the entire row of 16 houses with labels, starting with unsafe/uninhabitable to the most serious of imminent hazard. The posting would begin Thursday, he said.
The announcement followed a meeting last week when Marquardt met with county and state officials regarding the situation.
A perfect storm of events led to the decision to post the properties that have seen years of neglect and produced a myriad of issues, including unsafe and caving-in roofs.
Marquardt explained that the stricter FEMA flood plain requirements that went into effect in June of 2016 are also impacting the decision, along with a recent fire that left two families displaced in the row of houses.
The 2016 decision requires that any repairs worth half of the value of the property or higher in a designated special flood area must make drastic upgrades, Marquardt said.
For example, if a vacant house is bought in a repository sale for $500 and a repair of $250 or more is made, that house would have to be elevated 13 feet and/or the mechanicals moved to the second floor, which of course in a rowhouse would be impossible, he said.
As expected, the news did not go over well with those in the galley and a legal fight was promised. Once the properties are posted, residents will have 20 days to file a written appeal to begin the legal fight.
Marquardt said the most obvious route in fighting the decision would be to find a structural engineer willing to say that one particular property owner’s house could be saved, even if the neighboring and connected house(s) are falling down.
“It’s the method of the construction,” Marquardt said. “You can’t tear one down without effecting others. It will be a tough battle to find a structural engineer to say that some houses can stay while multiple others are removed.”
Although the vast majority of the hour-long discussion was civil, anger did occasionally spill over.
Residents repeatedly asked why 14th Street is being singled out when other properties are in the same condition. One resident pointed to a building connected to the Eagles Club on Erie Avenue, which was razed recently despite being connected to the Club, suggesting it is possible to tear some of the row houses down while leaving others standing.
Property owner Mike Hand spoke often, even acting as an unofficial liaison trying to keep fellow property owners calm and speaking one at a time. Hand at several points asked council why they would take on a fight that seems ripe with legal costs and a long court battle.
14th Street resident Tim Teague said that he just put $10,000 into a new kitchen and repaired his roof as well as part of a roof next to his, to stop a leak.
“Now, I’m going to lose my house to the borough for no reason. I paid all of this money… where does this put my family?” he asked.
One woman said that her family has a 3-year-old and a new baby will be here in 8 weeks. She questioned what she is going to do.
Marquardt’s status of being state certified but not a structural engineer was challenged several times by the property owners.
Renovo Police Officer Victor Foley offered a couple of times that it’s the health and safety of the situation leading to the decision.
“You can’t tear down house 1, 2 and 5 and leave houses 3, 4 and 6 there,” he said, adding that the property owners do have an option to fight the decision.
A big disconnect between council and the property owners is about repairs that may or may not have been made. Nearly every time a property owner spoke of a renovation that they claimed to have made, council challenge it, noting that a permit was never obtained for the work and it was never inspected.
Tax Collector Deb Pedokus reported that of the 16 properties, nine are taxed, seven are untaxed and numerous are late on taxes, water and sewage.
Six of the houses are currently in a repository sale state with two of those having fire damage, council reported and a total of five properties have fire damage at this time.