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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Aug. 14, 201412:00 PM EST

Blight demolition legislation deemed too broad

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

A City Council subcommittee learned Wednesday that proposed legislation intended to eradicate blight will have to be amended.

That was the opinion rendered by Assistant General Counsel Jason Teal, who expressed concern over whether some of the language in Ordinance 2014-427 is “legally supportable.”

The proposed ordinance would amend local public safety and nuisance abatement law to add as an “unsafe structure” non-historic buildings that have been boarded up and have had no active water or electric service for 24 or more months.

The amendment would require that such buildings be abated by the city in accordance with existing demolition remedies.

That’s something Teal said isn’t legally supportable.

“The government can’t take someone’s property without compensation or without good reason,” he told members of the Stand Up for Neighborhoods Subcommittee of the City Council Special Ad Hoc Committee on Jacksonville’s Neighborhood Blight.

Another issue that should be addressed in the bill’s language is that tearing down a building is the only option for a structure that meets the amended criteria.

“Demolition is the most extreme abatement,” Teal said. “Legally, government is required to use the lightest touch possible.”

The proposed legislation also conflicts with the “mothball” legislation on the books for historic neighborhoods, which allows a property owner to postpone for as long as three years demolition of a boarded-up structure not connected to utilities.

Teal said the difficulty is the inconsistent regulation would establish different rules for property owners based on the geographic location of the structure.

Council member Bill Bishop pointed out there could be any number of reasons a property might be vacant for an extended period of time — if the owner was out of the country for several years, for example.

He asked whether there is any local or state law that requires a structure to be connected to utilities. Teal said there is not.

Teal recommended adding to the proposed legislation some language from the state statute, Section 163.340, regarding blight and its elimination.

Under the statute, a “blighted area” is defined as an area in which there are a substantial number of deteriorated or deteriorating structures, in which conditions, as indicated by government-maintained statistics or other studies, are leading to economic distress or endanger life or property.

Teal said the bill would be improved by adding several of the specific conditions laid out in the statute, including incidence of crime in the area higher than in the remainder of the county, fire and emergency medical service calls to the area proportionately higher than in the remainder of the county and a greater number of violations of the Florida Building Code in the area than are recorded in the remainder of the county.

“We can tailor your definition of ‘unsafe structure’ to include some of these criteria,” determined by “What is the evil you’re trying to combat?” Teal said. He added that if the conditions for demolition are better defined, it would make the city less likely to be sued by a property owner over a demolition.

“It seems fair,” said committee Chair Denise Lee.

Council member Greg Anderson said he would support adding an appeal process to the procedure before a structure is demolished.

Teal said the opportunity for appeal is already in place through the Building Codes Adjustment Appeal Board.

Another option would be to allow a show cause hearing before a special magistrate as the first step after the city notified a property owner of planned demolition.

Lee said a change in description is needed for some challenged neighborhoods. She objects to use of the terms “’hood” and “high crime area” when describing a neighborhood.

“Those are code words for people to say, ‘don’t go there’,” she said.

Lee suggested that “high crime area” be replaced with “areas where crime is repeatedly happening.”

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