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Cleaning up the neighborhood

By a 3-to-1 vote on March 17, the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners approved an ordinance requiring the removal of unsafe buildings from the unincorporated areas of the county.The ordinance went into effect May 1 to allow time for inspectors in the development services department to be trained to enforce the ordinance.The ordinance defines an unsafe building as “any building or structure the condition of which presents a substantial danger or hazard to the public health, safety or welfare or any building which is materially dilapidated and unused by the owner or uninhabited because of deterioration or decay.”To be determined unsafe, a building also must be a substantial fire hazard and in danger of being damaged by a storm, soil erosion or rodent infestation. An unsafe building is described as well as one frequented by trespassers – or transients seeking temporary shelter.Amy Lathen, commissioner for District 2, which includes the Falcon, Peyton and Calhan areas, voted against the ordinance.”I’m not convinced that we don’t currently have something we can enforce. I don’t want to put an ordinance on the books just to put an ordinance on the books,” Lathen said.Assistant County Attorney Lori Seago said the county has an unsafe building regulation that is enforced by the regional building department. “It’s part of the regional building code,” Seago said.Commissioner Sallie Clark described the regional building department as “useless” in this regard. “I know it’s been useless in quite a few instances in the city limits of Colorado Springs, where regional just won’t enforce it,” Clark said. “They just don’t have the staff. It’s not a priority for them. It may be enforceable – it’s not enforced.”Seago suggested that the board amend the rubbish ordinance specifically to address mobile homes that are abandoned and rundown but do not present a fire hazard, danger of damage or trespass problem.”I don’t think we should be targeting anything else,” Lathen said. “The situation in the eastern part of our county with abandoned trailers and mobile homes is just awful. People who have property adjacent to these properties need help in cleaning things up because it’s reducing their property value. That’s of huge importance to me,” she said.Seago estimated that it would cost between $2,000 and $10,000 to remove the trailers – more if environmental hazards such as asbestos are present.”This county doesn’t have the funding to remove trailers at the risk that we won’t be paid back,” Lathen said. “We have to be very careful about putting something on the books that is unenforceable.”Maria Jindra, resident of eastern El Paso County, spoke about the need for an unsafe building removal ordinance that has some teeth. Jindra said Lincoln County burns and buries dilapidated trailers, and she suggested that El Paso County burn and recycle the frames, with the money from recycling going to the general fund.”El Paso County currently allows dangerous, dilapidated – vacant and occupied – residential and nonresidential structures in the unincorporated portion of the county,” Jindra said. She requested a remedy “for the health, safety and protection of all citizens’ property rights within El Paso County.”Commissioner Jim Bensberg reminded the board that the county has been struggling with this issue since 1999, when the board worked on zoning issues. “Beauty is often in the eye of the beholder,” Bensberg said. “They [trailers and mobile homes] are still private property and we need to respectthat.””It is a shame to have a property that is beautiful and well kept up and a property across the road that is just a dump,” Lathen said.At the same time, “government sometimes overreaches and we put people in a position where a neighbor may come along and say ‘I want that gone,’ and they are going to doggedly pursue that property owner until it is gone. I am concerned about giving the neighbor that tool,” she added.Clark restated her support for the unsafe building ordinance. “I believe this ordinance is important for the community. This board has continually stated that we want control over items like this so power isn’t abused,” she said. “We want to make sure that when we do enforce, that it’s actually necessary and that no other remedy could be found.”Commissioners Dennis Hisey, Clark and Bensberg voted in favor of the unsafe building ordinance with minor modifications. Commissioner Wayne Williams was not present.”We saw earlier this morning just how lenient this board can be with folks who have admittedly violated our present code,” Bensberg said. “Ultimately, this board has broad discretion, and I’m sure the folks who elect us will trust that we can exercise that discretion in a rational way in the future.”Lathen said she will work on modifications to the wording of the unsafe building ordinance. “I’m trying to figure out what the right language is because this is a huge problem, and I want to clean up this district,” she said.

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