Thursday, July 07, 2011

Council rules blighted Belmont house has until September

77-year-old Charles W. Rogers owns the blighted house at 704 Montrose Avenue.

Charlottesville, Va. – Tuesday evening City Council agreed, without voting, to give the owner of 704 Montrose Avenue until September to have contracts to repair or letters of intent to purchase the house, otherwise Council will order demolition. The work does not have to completed by then.

The owner, 77-year-old Korean War veteran Charles W. Rogers made a coherent case. He said he now has the money to bring the house up to code. He has $85,000 from unexpectedly selling a lot on Druid Avenue. He hasn’t moved forward since the April ruling from the Planning Commission which recommended 6 months to formulate a tangible plan for blight abatement. He was waiting for Council’s decision, which could have called for immediate demolition or quick-take seizure under eminent domain.

Rogers disputed every allegation made by city staff Patty Armstrong and Jim Tolbert. Rogers said the termite infestation has been eliminated. The house is not on the verge of collapse. It is not infested with rats because he put out enough rat poison “to kill an elephant” and doesn’t want rodents gnawing on his books.

Though unoccupied for 30 years, the house is used to store books. He estimated $20,000 to $30,000 to upgrade the house while staff and Council claim renovation will cost more than the place is valued. Rogers agreed to demolish the 2-story house if his contractors agree with the assessment of contractors the City hired. He also said “2 or 3” people have offered to buy the house as is. At a minimum he wants time to remove the books.

Both sides backed off from earlier rhetoric. In response to a Dec. letter from the City, Rogers claims in a 10-page handwritten letter in Jan. that the city has billed him for yard maintenance work not performed, a $900 and a $500 bill. He questions the ethics of City hiring contractors, who employ City employees, presenting the appearance of corruption. He has paid the bills and is current on all taxes.

Ms. Armstrong dropped her petty charge that Rogers’ Jan. letter was late. Rogers hand-delivered his 10-page letter on Jan. 17 but City Hall was closed due to Martin Luther King Jr. day. So Rogers had to make a second trip on Jan. 18. Armstrong complained the letter didn’t address her allegations. That’s because Rogers was presenting his side. Rogers had to write still another letter, this time only 2 pages, in May to address these government agents. Both letters are included in the Agenda.

In Council discussion, Satyendra Huja wanted to give the elderly man on a fixed income more time, 6 months or more. But David Brown was less caring and lenient with experience threatening houses as far back as 2006. Brown said 30 days should be enough time at least to get letters of intent, otherwise we’ll be right back here in 6 months. Holly Edwards seemed the most compassionate, wanting to respect the man’s dignity in this process. Kristin Szakos wanted hearing phones for the hearing impaired likes some churches have.

This story is yet another to show how incredibly far from the Constitution we have strayed. Council is serving as a court adjudicating the law, a panel of judges or a jury of elites. City inspectors are acting as law enforcement officers. In a real court, the accused is presumed to be innocent. Therefore the inspectors would be presumed liars and required to present evidence. Why is Council granting an extension instead of the Commonwealth’s Attorney or Judge?

Even more strange, Mr. Rogers’ civil right of due process is being violated simply because his life, liberty, or property is threatened by someone other than a court. City Council and the City Attorney were educated on the three branches of government and their roles at a Nov. 2006 Council meeting.

“Secondly, I’d like to ask the city attorney a civics question about our system of government. We have three branches of government. The legislative branch (city council) passes laws and ordinances. The executive branch (all city employees including police) enforces the laws. And the judicial branch interprets the law. Is it true, in our system of government, only courts can seize and sell property?” – Blair Hawkins Nov. 20, 2006.

The question of whether to employ due process or eminent domain has been dealt with over the years. In 2001 Council passed a Blight Ordinance. The main purpose was to avoid dramatic showdowns like the one tonight. Before then, blighted properties were seized, destroyed or resold without due process, similar to tonight’s proceeding. Under the ordinance, blight is treated like any other infraction. You don’t appeal a parking ticket to Council, so why would you take a housing code violation to Council?

There’s one problem with due process – the property must be sold at auction to prevent corruption. But eminent domain allows the seizing agency to set the selling price, choose the buyer, and continue to act as owner by dictating how the new owner will use the property; ensuring corruption as we see in the case of 704 Montrose Avenue.

At Tuesday’s meeting the selling end of eminent domain was on display. The surplus lot on Elliott Avenue had its first official public hearing. The last meeting’s public hearing didn’t count because of advertising glitches. At last meeting Tolbert suggested Council could deem that to be the second reading and Tuesday’s the first. But Council didn’t take his weird advice so there will be three readings.

There was a first reading for a land swap. The owner of River Court wants to swap for land at the end of Madison Ave at Washington Park near Preston Avenue. How did the City acquire this land anyway?

Also 409 Stadium Road facing Jefferson Park Avenue has the same issues. Council is trying to pick a new owner based on proffers to the City and future planned uses of the property. Why don’t they sell it at auction and current zoning?

Because they are control freaks – with the power and desire to ignore Constitutional limitations.

Video of July 5, 2011 City Council Meeting

11-item, 117-page Council Agenda July 5, 2011 with back ground materials

Previous Reports:

Council real estate dealings under scrutiny, June 20, 2011. Former Mayor Blake Caravati complains about City not being transparent.

Council refuses to release urban renewal archives: Jefferson School conflict of interest: Blighted house has until Feb 15, Nov. 21, 2006. Includes the “3 Branches of Government” speech, documentation of first request to view housing archives Mar. 25, 2004 and Council’s 2006 unanimous refusal to allow that.

Council to rule on ordinance violation: ‘Blighted’ house to be seized, Nov. 2, 2006. Photo of 610 Ridge Street next to LEAP around the corner from EcoMod and Burnet Commons. Shows lengthy process to declare blight, each step in the process resulting from historical abuses.

'Blighted' house to be seized: eminent domain by Council vote or due process by Court ruling? Oct. 15, 2006. 610 Ridge Street and condemnation notice.

Rogers agrees to demolish if independent contractors validate City findings.

You can easily see which is the problem property-- the overgrown house. The original sin may have been not continuing the privacy fence all the way around the property.