SOUTH LEBANON, Ohio – For nearly two years, a disabled woman says leaders in the Warren County village where she lives targeted her with a series of complaints because they want to take her house and tear it down.
Her court cases, which dragged out in South Lebanon mayor’s court for almost 20 months, wrapped up June 5, but Darlene Rogers said she fears it could start again.
“I haven’t had a decent night sleep since this all began. I’ve had the police at my door, beating my door down, handing me court summons,” said Rogers, 58, whose case has been in court 13 times since October 2012, according to court records obtained by WCPO.
The mayor called Rogers’ property at 143 S. Main Street an “eyesore,” and said the village is simply enforcing its laws to ensure South Lebanon looks as good as it can. Rogers, who lives on a fixed income of just over $700 a month, says the upkeep on her house is difficult for her, but maintains her home is not any worse than others in the village of 4,100.
At issue is whether village officials are doing their job by enforcing village laws for the health and safety of its residents or if they’re using the ordinances to further another motive.
Rogers' case is a classic example of a debate raging across the country for years—the intersection of individual property rights and government's power to take private property, said experts uninvolved with Roger’s case.
“If there is really a genuine public health or safety issue, then the government is empowered to do something about it," said Dan Alban, an attorney for property rights and economic liberty issues at the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Justice.
“But the problem is very often they pay lip service to public health and safety in order to exercise power arbitrarily. That is something we see across the country.”
'If I Did Not Sell, He Would Keep Citing Me To Court'
Ordinance violations at Roger’s house precede the start of her most recent court battle that began in 2012. She received a clean-up notice in 2011 for miscellaneous household items and car parts on her property.
She pleaded not guilty in court, and the case was dismissed after she addressed the issue and paid $70 in court fees.
But it wasn’t until 2012 that Rogers said she began to feel singled out.
The village mayor, Skip Lawhorn, identified her home as an “eyesore” at a public council meeting when he took office that year. The discussion was a small part of his larger platform to destroy blighted properties in the village.
“I just wanted the village to look better. You know, we have vast differences in residences here. We go from millions-of-dollar homes to 10, 15, $25,000 homes. We want those 10,15, $25,000 homes to look as good as they can,” Lawhorn said.
A building committee, formed by Lawhorn, chose five homes in the village that needed the most work. Rogers’ home was at the top of the list.
"It really and truly was [an eyesore] in the village, and nothing was being done with it," said Lawhorn. "It was just in bad shape."
The committee selected the homes to take advantage of grant money awarded from the state of Ohio to eliminate blighted property, said Gary Vidmar, South Lebanon village administrator. Vidmar, who was hired on full-time in April 2013, currently holds the task of inspecting property and enforcing village laws.
On behalf of the village, Lawhorn offered to buy Roger’s home in 2012 and recommended a senior living center where she could live.
"Have you been to her house? You should go look at that. I just think [the senior center is] a better place for her to live," Lawhorn said to WCPO.
But Rogers, who said she had lived in her home for more than 20 years without problems, didn’t want to sell.
“I love my home…I have lived here with the intention of staying here until my death.” said Rogers.
“‘I am not even old enough to qualify for that [senior center]," she said. "[I felt] about two inches tall. That I had put my heart and soul into my house and they're telling me it didn't amount to anything. Just that my life didn't amount to anything. Just give up and go live in a senior center."
Rogers and Lawhorn disagree on what happened next, but the conversation was the launching point for Rogers’ claims of being singled out and inappropriately targeted.
“He got real nasty and told me that if I did not sell, that he would keep citing me to court,” said Rogers.
Lawhorn says that never happened.
A former village council member, who served two four-year terms before losing re-election in 2013, corroborates Rogers’ claim.
Bill Madison wrote to Rogers just months ago about a closed-door meeting where he said the mayor inappropriately discussed his plans to push Rogers out of her home by issuing citations that she could not afford to fix.
“He indicated he had authorized our Village Administrator to carefully inspect and cite Mrs. Rogers for any and all issues discovered. To which the Village Administrator [Bob Craig] replied he had even wrote her up for
the broken brick in her fire place,” Madison wrote in the letter.
“Mayor Lawhorn [remarked] to this comment by stating there would be no way she could make the repair for the amount of issues cited with her fixed income and she could not outspend us (the village) and in a short time, he could level her house.”
Lawhorn denied Madison’s claims.
“That is not true. Bill Madison is a liar, and I'll say a liar,” he said. “I did not say that in executive session and he is telling a lie.”
Bob Craig, the former village administrator who Madison referenced in that letter and also the person who originally cited Rogers, declined to comment on whether the conversation happened. He said he did not recall specific details about Rogers case since he is no longer serving as a village employee.
“I would defer to the village solicitor on any matters discussed in executive session,” he said.
The citations begin
In September 2012 -- the same year the village offered to purchase her home, Rogers came home to a citation posted on her door. There were five violations that she had 10 days to correct.
“If I could have afforded to do what they were asking me to do, I would have done it in the first place,” she said.
According to public court records, Rogers was ordered to:
- Repair a broken rear second story window
- Remove a vining plant from the rear facade of the home
- Repair her gutters, downspouts and soffits throughout the home
- Repair a rear chimney
- Repair the wraparound porch
Rogers said she could not pay to fix the list of violations in the short time permitted to address the problem.
“I’m getting a very small amount and it’s barely enough to cover my bills and groceries,” said Rogers, days before her last appearance in court. “I’ve been trying to put the money together a little at a time.”
After a second notice to correct the issues, she hadn't fixed all of her problems. The next month, the village cited Rogers to court and provided her with a public defender.
That court appearance would be the first of 13, as the village continued to grant her continuances to give her more time to correct her problems.
"I always try to cooperate with an owner as long as the owner makes a serious and sincere efforts to remedy the violations,” said Vidmar, who has inspected Rogers property several times since the former administrator issued her first citation. “In the case of Ms. Rogers, the village has extended the deadline many times between September of 2012 and now, a total of more than 20 months, due to her extenuating circumstances.”
WCPO has filed a public records request to find out how much the village paid for the public defender's services over the 20-month period, but had not received those records when this article published.
As Rogers had more time to correct the issues, the list of issues to correct continued to grow.
The village magistrate found her guilty of the charges in July 2013. Court records indicate that Rogers was sentenced to 30 days in jail and ordered to pay a $250 fine. But the magistrate agreed to suspend her sentence if she fixed all of the problems and allowed the village to gain access to the inside of her home.
Just weeks before the magistrate ordered that sentence, Vidmar sent an e-mail to the village clerk of courts and the mayor after he had re-inspected the exterior of Rogers home. In the e-mail, he said he chose not to pursue an inspection of the inside because he knew he would not gain access.
"Without strong supporting evidence of specific interior code violations such as statements from individuals that personally witnessed such violations, we would need the owner's permission to conduct this inspection," he wrote on July 12, 2013. "Needless to say, I am confident we would not receive this permission."
Vidmar told WCPO that he did ask the magistrate to include access to the inside of her home as part of her sentence because he had reason to believe her safety was at risk.
"I was told by an agency that had been in the house that they refused to go back and make any additional repairs because they smelled gas," Vidmar said.
He entered her home with the Warren County building inspector and the fire marshal, and said they did not find any building code violations on the inside. But Vidmar did add another item to the list that did not comply with village standards.
At the time of her final court date on June 5, Vidmar checked to ensure a list of 12 items had been corrected.
That list included cracking concrete near her front entrance door, chipped paint on her home's siding and trim, missing gutters and a defective light fixture. It did not include items she had already fixed at the time of previous court dates.
It took thousands of dollars for Rogers to fix the property and help from community members in the village. But a magistrate found that Rogers is no longer in violation of village ordinances at her home.
Her case closed June 5 and she was not ordered to pay any court
fines. But that doesn't mean she's free from further inspection or citations, Vidmar said.
"Like every property owner, she'll be responsible to maintain her property going forward. Yes, we may inspect her property again."
Lawhorn said the village is not pursuing further talks to purchase Rogers' home, but they would still like to buy it if she changes her mind.
"She has to come to us now. I've went to her and it's up to her," Lawhorn said.
'It's no different for her than it is for anybody else'
While the village cites the health and safety of Rogers and other community members as their reason for enforcing the code so rigorously, Rogers maintains that her safety was never at risk.
“They’ve come up with violations that are nonsense. It was just a way actually for me to run out of money and not be able to afford my corrections,” Rogers said. "I think it's unreasonable. I don't need somebody to tell me how to take care of my house."
But village officials say that they are just doing their job, and they aren't enforcing the code differently on her property than they are for anyone else.
"There is a property maintenance code....When we cite a property owner, such as her, it's no different for her than it is for anybody else. We cite specific sections out of that code. All properties have to [follow] the same code. It doesn't matter if they are one year old or if they are one hundred year old," said Vidmar.
Vidmar said the village administrator has the discretion to decide how long to give someone to fix violations on their property before citing them to court. That length of time, he said, depends on the nature of each violation.
"During my one year period here, I would say that [Mrs. Rogers] probably has more violations than any other I've cited because she's had more violations," Vidmar said.
A WCPO analysis of citations issued to property owners in the village for ordinance violations between May 1, 2013 and May 31, 2014 found that Vidmar issued 39 first-notice citations to property owners in the village.
Of those citations:
- Twenty-five were issued for overgrown grass, weeds or other vegetation.
- Ten citations were issued for problems involving trash, automobiles and other household furnishings in the yard.
- Three were issued for problems involving deteriorating trim, siding, shingles or decks.
- Only one citation involved major structural problems, like sinking floors and walls.
Citations issued to Rogers' property were not included as part of the requested records. Vidmar said that's because he gave the final list of 12 violations to the magistrate, who then provided that list to Rogers in court.
WCPO has submitted a pending publics records request for citations issued between January 1, 2012 and May 1, 2013, when Rogers first received the list of citations issued by Craig, the former village administrator.
Despite village leaders' stance that they enforce the laws equally throughout the village, Madison, the former council member, still believes that the village administrator is neglecting to cite other homes the same way.
"There's a whole spectrum of homes that are maintained and dilapidated to the point where they need to be brought down. They need to be addressed," said Madison. "There are other homes in that town just as bad. Why aren't they being targeted? Why aren't they being managed."
Vidmar said his other job duties do not give him ample time to inspect every home in the village, but he invites everyone, including Madison, to make a complaint if they notice a problem.
"With the number of responsibilities that the village administrator has, property maintenance isn't at the top of that list normally. We'd like it to be, but we've got a very limited staff," he said.
Abusing the laws
The village of South Lebanon appears to be within their right to enforce village ordinances.
"The government has the regulatory power and the legal authority to address things that create a genuine public health and safety problem like actual blight where there is some sort of risk to the public or neighboring properties," said Alban, the attorney based out Washington D.C. "But the government is not permitted to target individuals specifically."
But experts say they commonly see municipalities across the country abuse their rights to enforce its laws.
"It's a phenomenon that's been going on for decades, particularly in Cincinnati. In that area, a lot of city managers or mayors kind have centralized plans about who they want to lay out of their communities," said Maurice Thompson, the executive director of the Columbus-based 1851 Center for Constitutional Law.
Thompson says communities used to rely on eminent domain, the power that government has to take private property to turn it into public use. But recently, he says, instead of going through the "front door," municipalities have started using the "back door" to acquire property it wants.
"You see a ton of exactly what you're talking
about...they simply need a way to get from point A to point B and they can't take the property. So they use code enforcement, vacant building maintenance licensing fees and rental inspection licensing schemes," he said.
"All of these kinds of programs are spreading like wildfire down there and the goal is to go through the backdoor and chase a lot of people out of their houses."
Thompson said he thinks the problem with property maintenance codes is that they are universally too broad.
"The ordinances are too vague, too arbitrary and really too trivial," he said. "Any one of us in any one of our houses can be cited for anything at a given time. Even peeling paint is a safety hazard, the wrong kind of door knob on your door, door hardware, every window has to be open and shut."
But despite those examples, Thompson said he isn't dismissing the need for property maintenance codes.
"There is a significant difference between purely private problems with the property which are those maybe about a paint job, most interior conditions, things that are not having an impact on the public," he said. "But there is always an example where if you are my neighbor and I see rats flooding out of your house and some are hanging out on my property, that's a reasonable cause to call the city."
Tim Burke, who has served as the law director for Lockland, the Village of Evendale and other local governments, said governments have a real challenge, too.
"As properties begin to deteriorate, it becomes particularly difficult to deal with property owners whose property has gotten away from them," he said.
"If government does nothing, that property becomes a safety issue for the occupant and secondly a blight on everyone else in the neighborhood that hurts people -- not just the property owner. It becomes difficult for the governmental entity to decide how hard they are going to move."