EagleHerald staff writer

MARINETTE —Holes in the roof, broken porch steps, shattered windows, dilapidated garages, fire damage, collapsed roofs and abandoned properties overgrown as the natural environment begins to reestablish its hold … and the long list of property code violations goes on. Some of those violations date back to March of 2019 with no action toward compliance despite repeated notices and citations from the city.

Such properties are scattered through the City of Marinette and can pose serious health and safety issues, not to mention the eye soars they inflict on residents of the neighborhood. City Building Inspector Curt Demlow pointed out that when an abandoned property sits for long periods of time, it grows derelict and poses risks to curious children who might venture into the structure. It can serve as a shelter to wild animals and pose many other hazards to an unassuming passerby.

“I would love to see Marinette be a thriving beautiful city again,” Demlow said. “But we have a lot of work to get there. We have a lot of abandoned homes and homes that haven’t been maintained for years.”

A FIRMER HAND

The City of Marinette aims to change that and better address such violations.

During the April Public Safety and Code Enforcement Committee meeting, Demlow and committee members dissected their way through a long list of Marinette properties that city officials continue to monitor for violations. They spent a majority of the meeting addressing each of those code violations line-by-line. And that was only the beginning. The committee plans to continue such monitoring at future meetings as they take a more proactive and timely approach to addressing some of the more grossly delinquent code violations.

Committee Chair Jeff Skorik had previously requested that Demlow present quarterly updates to the committee regarding various properties scattered throughout the city. That list included properties and structures that currently presenting one or more code violations in maintenance and upkeep.

“This is our way to check-in and see where we are with getting progress made on improvements or bringing (those properties) up to codes,” Skorik explained. “The building inspector, through his routine duties or based upon complaints from citizens responds to structures that may be non-compliant … some of those properties have been on the list for quite a while. And it is time for us to take some definitive action on getting those properties, hopefully, up to compliancy.”

In one of the more severe violations, the structure’s roof had collapsed and citations issued by the city dated as far back as March of 2019. And still, those citations remain unresolved.

Sometimes, when a property owner might live outside the state, having abandoned the property with no forwarding address, Demlow and the city confront a big challenge when it comes to enforcement. Such cases create a large impediment to gaining any type of compliance, much less a resolution on the code violation. In addition to health and safety hazards, such violations impose eye soars on neighborhood residents.

“Therefore, we are at a stalemate (on those specific properties),” Demlow said. “(Those property owners) won’t accept any mail from the city or any type of interaction from the city.”

THE ROAD TO COMPLIANCE OR CONDEMNATION

Committee member and Ward 4 Alderperson Doug Oitzinger pointed out that other options do exist to help the city gain compliance on such property negligence. Namely, those options consist of escalating the issue through a series of notices, citations and, ultimately, condemnation hearings, especially when the property owner is unreachable or simply ignoring city notices.

“If they want to ignore letters from the city, we have other means to take care of this,” Oitzinger said. “And the idea that something should go on for this long and (the property owner) refuses to accept letters from (the city) and so forth … I think that should be unacceptable to city government.”

Skorik reminded the committee that a process for condemnation exists. Moreover, because of the numerous violations detailed in the list, he said the committee must remain judicious in its approach, addressing each individual property within the context of the situation and the violation.

“So let’s not move forward until we been able to fully discuss this matter and look at the procedure that in place for doing that,” Skorik said.

THE PROCESS

Demlow summarized for the EagleHerald the process which the city uses to enforce property codes. It begins with a letter notifying the individual property owner of the specific violation. Based on the severity of the issue, Demlow generally gives owners 30 to 60 days to correct the issue. He explained that he understands every situation is different and extenuating circumstances can enter the picture.

“I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “I try to work with everybody as much as possible. I’ve been in the inspection business since 2013 and I have found that by giving people some grace … and working through (the issue) with them, I can gain a lot more compliance.”

Following the first letter and the 30-to-60-day grace period, if the owner still has shown no compliance, Demlow issues a second letter that includes another grace period to fix the problem. If the owner still refuses to comply, Demlow is authorized to begin issuing citations, which vary systematically in amount depending on the nature of the code violation. Those fines run anywhere from $350 to about $1,000 and decree a mandatory court hearing, according to Demlow.

“As committee chairperson, I feel that the city, by way of the building inspector works very hard to work with our citizens to give them time and give them the opportunity to get non-compliant properties back to compliance,” Skorik emphasized.

Once the city issues the first citation, technically, every consecutive day the violation is not addressed can result in another citation. However, Demlow rarely proceeds in such a manner. Instead, he continues to work with the property owner, allowing them time to work through the court process. Ultimately, if the owner takes no action the city can escalate to condemnation procedures.

“(Marinette) used to condemn a lot of these properties but there is a significant expense to the city for razing a building,” Demlow said.

If the city has to raze a structure, the cost is applied to the specific property’s taxes. But if the owner has abandoned the property, and stopped tax payments, then those costs are essentially paid by the city. That means that every other responsible Marinette citizen who maintains their property and pays their taxes winds up footing the bill for those few who choose not to.

“And that certainly is not our goal,” Skorik told the EagleHerald. “Our goal is to work with people and try to get properties into compliance.”

He further reiterated that condemnation represents a last resort and that the city takes every possible action to avoid that result.

However, for the more severe and delinquent cases, the city hopes to take a firmer and more timely approach.

“I just think we need to have … some quicker follow-up on the second citation if there is no action (on the first),” said Mayor Steve Genisot. “I think everyone has been reasonable, and (Demlow) has been more than lenient.”