Zebulon downtown boosters fret over town’s inaction

jwhitfield@newsobserver.comOctober 11, 2013 

— Mayor Bob Matheny asked town staff to put together a report on the town’s effort to bring a crumbling downtown building into compliance with the town’s ordinances Monday night, Oct. 7, after the Zebulon Beautification Committee asked town commissioners to take action to save the building rather than tearing it down.

Ramona Davis, president of the beautification committee, told commissioners the property at 116 N. Arendell Ave. – which used to house City Barbershop – has been on the town’s radar for three years now, but it remains in disrepair. The roof is gone, tape covers cracks in the windows and boards cover up the building’s back door. Weeds have sprung up inside the building.

“The property… is a disgrace to the downtown business district and to the image of Zebulon,” Davis said. She said the property owner, Wilhelm Marsh, was responsive to the town’s initial demands that he clean up the property. Marsh removed a crumbling roof and cleaned up debris at the back of the property. “Since then he has done nothing. We all agree that the building should not just sit there deteriorating further day by day,” Davis said.

Davis said Town Manager Rick Hardin, in a conversation with members of the Downtown Beautification Committee, said the town plans to tear the building down. But Davis asked commissioners Monday night not to do that. Hardin says he made no such claim.

“This would leave another hole in the downtown landscape like the one left when the Wake Art Theatre was removed. The town will be faced with crumbling plaster on the wall, similar to what is on the side of Antone’s building, and cracked tile on the ground,” Davis said.

Instead, Davis proposed that the town issue civil penalties of $50 per day until the building is brought into compliance with the town’s regulations. She also asked commissioners to direct the town attorney to investigate the legality of foreclosing on the property and offering it at public auction to anyone who will commit to fixing the building.

“We know everyone has been clamoring for you to do something with this property and that you have worked diligently to find a solution. We are only asking you to do something constructive, but not to tear down something that cannot be replaced,” Davis said.

Zebulon Planning Director Mark Hetrick and Code Enforcement Officer Bo Dobrzenski say deciding what to do about the property is not as cut and dried as it may seem to some.

“We don’t want to foreclose on the property and we don’t want to tear the building down. We want to be reasonable and work with the property owner so that he will fix it,” Hetrick said.

Progress hard to come by

That strategy hasn’t worked too well so far, though. Town and county officials, according to a timeline prepared by Dobrzenski, first reached out to Marsh on Oct. 20, 2010. It took Marsh seven months to respond to repeated attempts by the town and county to communicate about the problems with the building. Dobrzenski’s timeline shows that Wake County building inspectors and Zebulon town planners tried at least three other times to reach Marsh, including trips by the inspectors to his residence. Dobrezenski asked Zebulon police to help search for another address for Marsh.

During that seven-month stretch the town and county also sent Marsh at least three other written notices that the building was in violation of the town’s codes.

On May 18, 2011, Marsh called the planning department to ask about how to apply for a permit to adding a new roof to the building. A collapsed roof was one of the problems noted in the unsafe building notice sent to Marsh.

Two days later, on May 20, 2011, Marsh received a permit to demolish the roof.

Some work began, but in August, Dobrzenski sent Marsh another letter explaining that the building was still in violation of the town’s codes because of he collapsed roof, broken windows, loose brickwork and the accumulation of construction debris behind the building. Dobrzenski gave Marsh 30 days to correct those problems. By Sept. 19, 2011 a final inspection was completed and inspectors found that all the problems had been addressed except for broken windows on the front of the building.

A few weeks later, construction debris that had been removed suddenly reappeared behind the building.

Three months later, in January 2012, Dobrzenski sent Marsh another notice of violation, citing the reappearance of the construction debris and the unrepaired windows. A month later, in February 2012, Marsh said he planned to repair the building in March 2012. Four days later, on Feb. 25, 2012, Marsh had the debris pushed inside the building and secured the building.

That’s the last time the town has heard from Marsh.

Marsh did not return calls for this story.

In October 2012, eight months after Marsh cleaned the site a second time, the town sent Marsh another notice of violation because of the broken windows and the presence of the debris inside the building.

That letter, written nearly one year ago, is the last recorded effort made by the town to resolve the problems with the building.

What now?

Hetrick and Dobrzenski say they will present their timeline to commissioners and to Hardin, the town manager, but they want to consult with the town’s attorney before they recommend what action the town should take now.

Hetrick said it is within the town’s authority to issue a civil penalty. The town staff, he said, could take that action without seeking approval from commissioners or advice from the town attorney. But Dobrzenski pointed out that rules governing building appearance in the downtown district have changed since the town began dealing with this problem.

“The downtown appearance ordinance gives the town more teeth to deal with a situation like this,” Dobrzenski said. “But we would want to make sure we were on solid legal ground before we did anything like tearing down someone’s building.”

Whitfield: 919-829-4823

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