KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – In an effort to curb property degradation and deter squatting, officials with the City of Kingsport said several structures have been or are set to be destroyed this year.
On average each year, the city identifies roughly 30 properties that meet the criteria for destruction, but so far in 2022, nearly 60 such properties have been pinpointed.
“We have empty buildings, vacant structures, abandoned buildings. You invite all kinds of not just, you know rats, rodents. We get a lot of vagrants. They get in the wintertime if they try to stay warm, then there’s a big danger of house fire and that endangers all the structures around it as well,” Kingsport Building Official Keith Bruner said.
Bruner said his office is working on 60 active dilapidation cases, nine of which have already been condemned with bids going out for those properties to be demolished.
Three other cases have been appealed. The decision to demolish has been appealed to the Sullivan County Chancery Court, Bruner explained.
Once a complaint has been filed with the building office, Bruner said that he dispatches a building inspector to the property to file a report to him.
“They will gather evidence and they create a report,” he said. “Then there is an initial letter sent to the homeowners giving them 30 days to respond, to either fix or demolish the building. If that doesn’t happen, then it goes into the hearing process.”
Bruner is the building hearing officer, as he is the city’s building official. He evaluates all the inspectors’ reports and sends out letters to each homeowner to have a hearing and listen to all parties involved.
“Based on the evidence, I make a decision whether the building can be repaired or needs to be demolished and then issue that order giving the owner 60 days to respond to either tear the building down or appeal my decision,” he said. “And at the end of that 60 days in, if they’ve not appealed and it goes on the list to be bid out.”
Property owners are responsible for demolishing their structures, but if they do not, the city steps in. Some taxpayer money is spent on these projects, but Bruner explained that the money is made back by means of a lien placed against the properties that the city is responsible for demolishing.
“We take the lowest bid, award those, the construction companies tear them down, and once all the demolition is completed, we’ll place a lien on the property,” Bruner said. “We don’t actually take possession of the property; we just place a lien on it, on the property.”
It takes roughly six months to identify the problematic property, contact the owners, arrange and hold hearings and see the repair or demolition to the finish. But it’s not always that easy.
“Most of these properties are vacant, abandoned. The owners are deceased,” Bruner said.
He said in some cases, notices have had to be mailed as far as California in search of heirs to a deceased homeowner that left a vacant property deemed unfit for human habitation.
“Like maybe two or three heirs there might be. I think we’ve had as many as 17 on one. So it takes some time, and if we schedule a hearing and we can’t get all the heirs or lienholders notified then we’ll have that here and for the ones we do and then we had scheduled another hearing for the others, and try to locate them.”
Bruner said state law and city ordinance allow the city, once they’ve exhausted all means by trying to find the owners, to run an ad in the paper for two weeks to alert the owners.
Bruner has made this project a priority as the city’s building official.
“I believe that the Property Maintenance code is one of the most important codes that we do enforce,” Bruner said. “It ensures the neighbors around these properties, if we act and hold all the neighbors to the codes then it helps maintain the property value and ensures their enjoyment of their property.”
In one case, the building in question was near a church that was vandalized and ultimately torn down in 2021.
William Sheppard lives across the street from an abandoned home recently demolished by the city on Ashwood Avenue.
“I was glad to see it done because the homeless people,” Sheppard said. “I don’t begrudge homeless people nothing. But they [were] leaving syringes and stuff. I’d walked my dog and I was threatened by a couple of them really, but I was glad to see them tear [it] down. Especially that one house and the church was both graffiti. It was awful.”
But just because he was happy to hear the buildings are being demolished when they become dangerous, he said the city could still do more.
“The grass, I’m six foot two, it’s up to my chest,” Sheppard said. “If I let my property get like that, the city would be on top of me with fines and everything else. They just let this property just go.”
He said he has reported multiple homes on the road where he lives that have fallen into disrepair. Some have been demolished, others haven’t.
“I just wish they’d come out and take care of the property. You know, when they do tear these houses down. Once they tear them down, they just walk away from them,” he said.
If there is a dilapidated property, perhaps abandoned or simply too dangerous to house human inhabitants, Bruner suggests residents report the code violations to the building department via the Connect Kingsport App.