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Standards Commission imposes hefty fine for neglected house

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

Austin’s Code Compliance Department is making efforts to resolve outstanding cases involving dilapidated homes, but some members of the city’s Building and Standards Commission say the department’s fines are too high, and the city should take more responsibility for homes that have fallen under the radar.


In a vote of 5-2, the commission voted last week to impose a $95,500 fine on a property in east Austin, off Highway 183.


Investigator Luther Perez told commissioners the house is dangerous and substandard, and part of the roof has collapsed. The property owners, brothers David and Donald Moore, did not attend the meeting.


Attorney Christopher Moore, the city’s building and standards coordinator, said city officials had contacted the owners of the house at 5904 Harold Ct. in 2007 about needed repairs, but the city had not revisited the case until recently.


Code Compliance Director Carl Smart said it was the owner’s responsibility to take care of the property and avoid a penalty.


Smart said commissioners should expect to vote on more properties that have been neglected by the city for several years. “We’re cleaning up basically,” he said. “You’ll start to see a lot more aggressive legal action taken on cases like this.”


Commissioner Daniel Gonzalez, who opposed the $95,500 fine, said the city is to blame for allowing the home to linger for seven years, and it was unfair to impose so large a fine. “Whatever we do tonight is going to set a precedent,” he said.


Commissioner Charles Cloutman also opposed the fine, saying the city was passing the buck to the property owner for its own shortfall. “We are assessing an unreasonable penalty,” he said. Cloutman said the owners inherited the property after their parents died in the 1990s.


Commissioner Tim Hill, who supported the fine, said the Code Compliance Department has more officers now than it had seven years ago. The department was working with the resources it had at the time; we can’t judge it based on today’s resources, he said.


Hill also said the owners could have attended the Feb. 26 meeting and asked for a lower fine. No one attended the meeting to represent the property.


The owners can still go to the District Court and ask for a lower penalty, Hill said.


Gonzalez made a motion to the cut the fine in half and charge only $47,750. The motion failed 4-3, with Commission Chairwoman Ethelynn Beebe and Commissioners Steven Alloway, David Brown and Stacy Kaplowitz dissenting.


Brown said he would rather impose a larger fine because the property owners did not attend the meeting. “That is unacceptable,” he said.


Beebe argued the vote would not set a precedent for future cases, in which a property in need of repair has fallen under the city’s radar.  The commission can treat each instance as an individual case, she said.


The city has building standards that the owner did not follow, Beebe said. “If we had had staff during that time…I might feel a little differently,” she said. “We didn’t have the resources.”


But the city does not share equal responsibility for the property, Beebe said.


The next commission meeting will be Wednesday, March 26.

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