CINCINNATI — A judge has declared seven buildings in Over-the-Rhine and one in Avondale "public nuisances," paving the way for the city to seize control of the properties if their owner doesn't make extensive repairs by March 15.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Jerome Metz set the deadline in an order dated Dec. 17, 2015 following a November hearing where city officials asked the court to take action on 11 buildings owned by 2414 Morgan Development, LLC, a Washington-D.C.-based developer.
Ten of the structures are located north of Liberty Street in the heart of Over-the-Rhine. The other is in Avondale.
WCPO first reported on the deterioration of the group of vacant buildings in May 2014. City officials argued that the rotting buildings contribute to neighborhood blight, pose a hazard to the public and could be death traps for firefighters.
The company made repairs to several of the buildings before Metz personally inspected the properties in early December. City building inspectors determined that three of the buildings had met the city's standards, and city lawyers withdrew them from the city's request to have all the properties declared public nuisances, city attorney Jessica Powell said in an email to WCPO. Those three buildings are located at 1624 Pleasant St., 201 E. Clifton Ave. and 1613 Walnut St.
"Repairs are, of course, good. Obviously it is frustrating that it took a lawsuit, several years and countless hours of code enforcement resources, leveraging of legal options and a four-day court hearing to get movement on this," Powell wrote.
George Musekamp, a lawyer with Thompson Hine LLP who is representing 2414 Morgan Development, said his client didn't have much to say about the court order because the litigation is ongoing.
"The court's order is the court's order, and we're complying with the court's order," he told WCPO.
Owner: I Want To Make A Difference
Under the terms of the court order, 2414 Morgan Development has until March 15 to make repairs that the city requires to issue so-called "Vacant Building Maintenance Licenses." The city's vacant building maintenance licenses ordinance requires the owners of vacant properties to make sure their buildings are barricaded, so that trespassers can't enter them, and stabilized so they are safe for first responders and so pieces of the structures don't fall into the street or onto people below.
If the developer meets that deadline and the city building inspectors agree that the buildings meet the city's standards, the properties will no longer be declared public nuisances.
But if the buildings don't meet those standards, there will be a follow-up hearing with the court. At that point, Metz could immediately appoint a receiver — a person or organization to stabilize the properties and bring them up to the city's standards.
The owner of the properties has been fighting to maintain control. The company said in November that the properties are works in progress that could meet the city's building code requirements with fewer than 45 days of work.
"It's not greed that brought me to Cincinnati but my faith and my passion to help others," Nigel Parkinson, a partner in 2414 Morgan Development, testified during the November hearing. "That's what brought me to Cincinnati, and I think I'm going to make a difference."
Disappointed But Hopeful
When WCPO first reported on the properties in May 2014, Cincinnati building inspector Mike Fehn said 2414 Morgan Development had quickly become the "worst" owner of multiple, vacant properties in Over-the-Rhine. Half the structures had been deemed "dangerous and unsafe," according to city inspection records, and nearby property owners worried the blight could stymie the neighborhood's rebirth.
Under the terms of the Dec. 17 court order, 2414 Morgan Development must:
• Schedule inspections of each of the properties in question, and the inspections must happen within five business days after March 15.
• Pay re-inspection fees for newly identified problems at any of its properties. The cost is $100 for each re-inspection at each property. The company must pay those fines within 10 days of re-inspection.
• Have a local contact that can deal with emergencies at the buildings and will patrol the buildings each week to make sure they are weather-tight and haven't been broken into.
• Have at least $5,000 available that its local contractors can use for emergency repairs at the buildings.
In addition, if the city finds new problems at any of the eight buildings declared public nuisances — or at any of the three that have met the city's standards — the company has agreed to "timely repair" those problems.
The city still is pursuing other claims against 2414 Morgan Development, Powell wrote in an email to WCPO. The city is seeking more than $100,000 from the company plus court costs, she wrote. That total would cover the vacant building maintenance license fees, civil fines and abatement costs that the city says the company owes.
"We are disappointed that it took so long to get this far," she wrote. "But otherwise, we are hopeful that compliance with the minimal VBML requirements will be achieved."
Metz has scheduled a hearing for March 29 to get a report on 2414 Morgan Development's compliance with the court order and to discuss the city's remaining claims.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.