Butte-Silver Bow Contemplates New Ordinance For "Dangerous Buildings"


Dangerous Buildings Ordinance

Butte-Silver Bow’s Community Enrichment Department has drafted a new ordinance for dilapidated buildings in the city-county. The ordinance is not yet law, and will be reviewed for the first time by Butte’s Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, May 8th. Ordinance #19-08 would replace Butte’s existing law for the abatement of dangerous buildings, and set in motion a process by which Butte’s building inspector could compel owners of buildings deemed to be dangerous to either repair, vacate, or demolish such structures.

Here’s a brief rundown of the process outlined in this ordinance:

Within 10 days of a notice being posted on the door of the building, owners can appeal to the Montana Second Judicial District Court. Failure to appeal constitutes a waiver of all right to a hearing. The building must then be repaired or demolished in accordance with an abatement plan and time table established by the Code Enforcement Officer. If the structure is deemed immediately dangerous to the public, it will be ordered to be vacated, and BSB will put a white sign on the door that says DO NOT ENTER, UNSAFE TO OCCUPY. It is a misdemeanor to remove this sign or go in the building after it is posted, if no appeal is filed. The city-county may then initiate any action to abate the building as a public nuisance. Owners would have up to 120 days to address the structural deficiency. If the property owner fails to comply with the building inspector’s notice, the inspector may direct that the repair or demolition be accomplished by personnel of the City-County or by a private contractor. Within 20 days after the repair or demolition of a dangerous building, the property owner will get a bill from the city-county for the cost of the work as well as administrative costs, and will have 30 days to pay this.

Butte-Silver Bow’s Judiciary Committee will review this ordinance for the first time on Wednesday, and I spoke with Brendan McDonough, the committee’s chair, who said he had not read the draft ordinance yet. It is being introduced by the Community Enrichment Department.

“They’re asking us to entertain it so that they can address buildings that are beyond the point of repair, if it’s deemed that. I’m sure we’ll have long discussions regarding what constitutes that or what other preventative measures that we use before we — you know. I don’t think they’re just looking to demolish buildings, simply because we have the historic preservation commission and you have to go through the review process and all sorts of stuff. I think it’s going to allow the ability to move in and address property owners that just leave their buildings falling. I think that we’re all trying to push collectively to get buildings addressed and resolved before they become an issue. You know, they’re reluctant to demolish. I mean, I would never advocate to just demolish a building. That’s never been my stance.”

John Moody, Assistant Director of the Community Enrichment Department that has drafted the ordinance, says dangerous buildings are a common feature in the Butte community.

“We do have a lot of such buildings. It’s just because we’re an aging community and you know, everything is aging here. A lot of these buildings were built at the turn of the century and when there isn’t upkeep and they’re not well maintained, there’s issues with them. There becomes structural issues with them.”

Of the 18 criteria that this ordinance looks at to determine whether a building is dangerous or not, one looks at whether the building is so dilapidated that it has become a harbor for vagrants, criminals or immoral persons, or enables persons to resort to using the building for the purpose of committing unlawful or immoral acts. I asked John Moody what they mean by “immoral.”

“[Laughs] That’s a hard one. And that is in the national codes, you know. And I guess we take that as being somebody that’s in there, you know, that there’s drug issues, there’s vagrant people living in a property that has no running water or sewer, or any of that. That’s our perception of it, immoral, and like I said it’s a standardized terminology that’d in the national code. We did put that in there just because we do — we have a lot of vacant buildings that have transients living in them, starting fires inside of them to keep warm in our cold winters. And then we also have some that are drug houses. We’re getting people trespassing into these buildings, living in them, cooking their meth, doing what they do as far as drug houses go.”

John Moody of Community Enrichment says that once buildings have gone past a threshold of feasibility for repair, this ordinance will allow the city-county to become involved with the property and ultimately decide whether or not it will be torn down.

“But again, that choice is up to the landowner. If the property owner decides he’s not going to do anything, then we feel it’s in our best interest and the best interest of the community to make these safe. And that may be up to the point of demolition. We have a historic preservation person on staff at Butte-Silver Bow who would weigh in on all these properties. And we as their opinion to begin with. Again it’s that threshold, an economics threshold, whether or not repair is feasible or not, or to restore or preserve these buildings. Sometimes we get to the point that it’s just not financially feasible to keep these properties on the books. Sometimes they have to be demolished.”

Shawn Fredrickson is commissioner for district 1 in Butte-Silver Bow and Vice-Chair of the Judiciary Committee. He says he’s unclear about some of the language in the proposed ordinance, and is looking forward to clearing things up at the meeting this week.

“Fundamentally I’m against tearing down buildings that don’t need to be torn down. So I guess my questions that I still have, that I’m going to be asking at the judiciary committee is, what’s the difference between what we have on the books and what this new ordinance provides. The list of reasons for tearing down a building— one that stood out to me is if it’s vacant for six months, then it sounds like, the way it’s written right now — if any building or home is vacant for six months, it can just be torn down, which I don’t agree with.”

Another criteria for a building to be deemed dangerous by this new ordinance is whether the walls are straight, and whether a plumb line passing through the center of gravity does not fall inside the middle one third of the base.

“The home that I currently live in would fall within that guideline. I thought that was kind of interesting myself.”

Asked whether this proposed ordinance would result in more repairs or more demolitions, Commissioner Fredrickson said:

“Well it sounds like it would provide more demolitions, the way I looked at it. An unsafe building, sure. I think that that’s probably reasonable for demolishing it. But I want that to be a little bit more clear on what’s unsafe. You know, if someone’s not in the house for six months, but by all accounts it’s being kept up — I mean I don’t think we should go in and demolish it just because no one’s living in it. Is it mothballed? Or is the owner planning on doing something else with it? I mean these are all questions that need to be hashed out before I would be comfortable signing off on it.”

The Butte-Silver Bow Judiciary Committee will discuss this Dangerous Buildings ordinance for the first time on Wednesday at 7pm at the courthouse. Commissioner Fredrickson, vice-chair of the committee, says it’s important for folks to show up if they would like to comment.

“It’s really important that id you do have an opinion on this ordinance that you should show up to the judiciary committee. A lot of people think that you should just show up for the actual council meeting, and that’s true when we’re voting on it, but we’re still — this is the very first step in the public process on passing an ordinance or not passing an ordinance. The four or five council members on the judiciary committee will debate the issue and then reccommned it for a vote for council. Yeah, showing up to the judiciary committee meeting is really important.”

The Judiciary Committee meets Wednesday, May 8th at 7PM.

For KBMF, I’m Clark Grant.