BURLINGTON - The vacant, dilapidated building at the corner of Cedar and La Fountain streets is a real mess, but it looks like a clean-up crew is coming soon.
On October 31, 2006 ownership of the two-story structure at 33-35 La Fountain passed from Craig Lesage of Starksboro to Winston Jennison of Johnson. Jennison purchased the building in a tax sale on October 31, 2005. He paid $30,905.34, the amount Lesage owed the city in back taxes. Lesage had one year to reimburse Jennison that amount plus 12-percent interest, but he never made a payment.
Thirty grand might seem like a small price to pay for a property in downtown Burlington, but the former storefront and apartment complex is definitely a fixer-upper - or, more accurately, a tear-downer. A weather-beaten sign posted on the front of the building warns that the city deems it "unsafe and dangerous." Graffiti mars the boarded-up windows; a frayed blue tarp covers the leaky roof. Photos from a city inspection last fall show the inside has been heavily damaged by water, mold and debris. "It's like Katrina," suggests Assistant City Attorney Gene Bergman.
Conditions like this are not supposed to exist in Burlington. Since 1999, the city has had a vacant buildings ordinance requiring owners to apply for a quarterly permit, which is granted following an inspection by the Code Enforcement Office. But Lesage, who bought the property from his father for $10 in 1997, hasn't applied for a single permit.
Bergman and other city officials have been aggressively pushing Lesage to comply with the law for the last two years. Appearing at a hearing before the Development Review Board last December, the absentee owner vowed to reimburse Jennison for the property, and to redevelop or sell it immediately.
But in the months that followed, Lesage made only minor cosmetic improvements. In May, after sending letters threatening legal action, Bergman charged Lesage with six counts of violating the vacant building ordinance. Each violation carries a fine of between $50 and $500, and up to 30 days in jail.
Lesage pled not guilty, but rescheduled or failed to show up for several court dates. He eventually pled guilty and was fined $2434. He has until December 15 to pay. Reached by phone, Lesage declined to comment for this article.
Bergman offers the case as proof that the city takes the ordinance seriously. "You've got laws," he says. "You have to enforce them to make the system work. If you don't, people just ignore them."
Now it's up to Winston Jennison to adhere to the law. The 70-year-old retiree bought the property, sight unseen, as an investment; he had hoped Lesage would pay him, so he'd never even have to own it. What are his plans for the building? "To get rid of it," he quips.
Brian Pine, assistant director for housing and neighborhood revitalization at the Community and Economic Development Office, says he's been trying to broker a deal between Jennison and Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity. The organization would like to build two units of affordable housing on the lot.
Pine suggests it will cost at least $200,000 to rehabilitate the building. There's still "quite a ways to go" before they finalize the deal, he reports.