Topeka Eyesores Part II: Clearing Up the Capital City’s Code

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Code enforcement’s bark has long been worse than its bite in the Capital City.

Six officers make nearly 13,000 visits to crumbling commercial buildings and neglected homes every year in a city that’s 60 square miles. But the problem is many citizens feel they haven’t seen results. Now, in the second part of our Topeka Eyesores series that first aired last November we’re looking at the property code overhaul that’s currently underway.

“When we look through the windows we’re able to see that the 2nd floor has collapsed into the basement,” Topeka code enforcement officer Dennis Boyles said.

The old Van Buren School off of southwest Harrison has seen better days. The century old structure was first a school and then a commercial property, but it’s been on code enforcement’s long list of violators for years.

“We’re always finding where windows are open where people are getting in and scrapping what’s left in there of value or we’re having doors broken into and people inside the building,” Boyles explained.

After months and months of trying to work with the current owner, the city is finally one step closer to tearing the towering eyesore down. There is a complex flow chart for each of eight processes that cover eight different types of violations. However, that same code that protects the property owner has also prevented the city of Topeka from taking definitive action.

But, that’s about to change. Captain Darin Scott oversees neighborhood relations and says a citizen led code compliance committee has been reviewing the code.

“We found it to be somewhat disjointed, and it was arguable,” Scott said of the code.

So, they’ve recommended marrying the standard international property maintenance code with existing ordinances. It’s a process that dates back to 1996, but neighborhood summits held last year prompted city manager Jim Colson to take action.

Scott said: “We’re going to do this one shot hopefully and get it right the first time.”

The police captain says the new code will not only clarify a citizen’s responsibilities. It will also give the code teeth for his officers to take action. However, he is quick to clarify that this is not about first time violators.

“The city manager was very clear that we want voluntary compliance,” Scott explained. “We do not want to be out there having to make people do the right thing.”

But sometimes that’s what it takes.

“Pulling people who have violated the code 10 times or more in the last several years is 76 pages,” Scott said.

Code compliance faces to big challenges that an overhaul won’t completely overcome. The first is that there’s only $100,000 for demolition each year. A building the size of the Van Buren school will take that and thousands more. The second is that often a property will be sold at a tax auction only to be bought by a friend or relative, and the process starts all over with the new property owner.

In the end, Scott says it’s not a quick fix; property code enforcement is a process.

Separately, the city is also considering creating a land bank. A commission would hold, manage, and develop properties that have fallen into disrepair, been unoccupied for six months, and the owners haven’t taken any action. The first reading of the new code was to happen Tuesday night (2/4/14), but the city council’s meeting was canceled because of the winter weather.

 

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