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Still Nobody Home in the City's Vacant Buildings

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BURLINGTON -- Empty buildings are bad for neighborhoods. A Burlington ordinance requires owners of vacant buildings to submit to quarterly inspections, and pay a $500 quarterly fee. Exceptions can be made if owners have secured permits, are actively renovating their properties, or if a property is on the market.

But enforcement has been lax. Several vacant buildings have remained uninspected for years, with the Department of Code Enforcement neglecting to assess a vacant building fee. That changed this summer. After Seven Days ran a story about a dozen abandoned buildings in town, city officials contacted each of the landlords on the list. They inspected all 12 properties and assessed back fees. Many of the buildings are now either on the market or permitted for rehabilitation or demolition.

Although the crackdown came on the heels of the Seven Days story, Assistant City Attorney Gene Bergman says it had been in the works for months. It got a boost from Code Enforcement Director Gregory McKnight, who joined the department in April.

McKnight is determined to enforce the law. So far he has collected fees from eight of the owners and inspired them to take action. Clark Hinsdale Jr., who owns the building at 280 North Winooski Avenue, paid $5000 in fees, according to Bergman. He also renewed a permit to demolish the structure, though no action has yet been taken. Hinsdale did not respond to an email asking for information about the property.

The building at 60 Riverside is also slated for demolition -- commuters may have noticed that Vermont Gas recently cleared the brush from around the crumbling hillside structure. Vermont Gas spokesman Jim Condos says the project has long been on the company's "back burner." Perhaps the recent progress was motivated by the $1500 in fees they paid.

Other property owners have refused to pay up -- on December 15, the Public Works Commission heard an emotional appeal from Don and Carol Albertson, who own the unfinished house at 97 Dunder Road in the city's South End. The Albertsons objected to their $1500 bill, representing the last three quarters of 2005. It's unclear how long the house has been vacant -- the Albertsons have declined to say, and the property has only been on the city's radar since December 2003. Neighbors report there has been little progress in the past 14 years.

Don Albertson, an architect, said he had worked on the project -- on paper. He acknowledged that he had yet to secure any permits, but said he shouldn't have to until his designs are completed. "This code needs to be reworked," he insisted. "It doesn't allow for the realities of development."

During his rebuttal, McKnight noted that the city had waived a significant portion of the back fees, to allow the Albertsons time to deal with a family crisis. The commission unanimously denied the appeal.

Also on the docket was an appeal by Craig Lesage, who owns the graffiti-marred, two-story structure at 33-35 La Fountain St. in the Old North End. Lesage has not paid taxes on the property since he inherited it in 1997. It became vacant shortly after he assumed ownership, and is now uninhabitable. In August, neighbors complained that they often had to clean up trash from around the building and mow the lawn.

This fall, city officials secured a court order to inspect the building and found that portions of the roof had collapsed. Photos from that inspection show considerable water damage inside the debris-strewn space. Inspectors noted that the building's wooden porch is also unsound. After repeated attempts to compel Lesage to deal with the property, the city sold it in a November tax sale for $30,905.64.

Lesage had planned to appeal the sale, but changed his mind moments before the hearing. Public Works Director Steve Goodkind told the commission that Lesage had expressed a desire to renovate the property, and advised that he be given a short period of time to follow through on that plan. If Lesage does not act, he faces civil and criminal penalties.

After the hearing, Lesage explained that several "medical and family issues" had set him back. "Once you get behind the eight ball," he said, "it's hard to get out."

Lesage, who said he owns three other properties, plans to fix up the building and sell it. "We've had some investors who have backed out," he said, explaining the delay.

He didn't seem concerned about the building's appearance. "It's in rough condition," he admitted, "but it's a rough neighborhood anyway." And he dismissed residents who complained about the building's condition. He claimed they generate most of the trash that ends up on his property. "They have a lot of nerve," he said. "They're not good neighbors."

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