Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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11th hour permit allows work to begin on dilapidated house, rather than begin its demolition


Bulldozers and wrecking balls can make quick work of an abandoned dwelling. But the process that sets loose these tools of destruction can be a long and convoluted one – especially when it’s a municipality, and not the property owner, that’s calling for a home’s demolition.

No where has the slow clip of forced demolition been more evident than in Gibsonville, where an uninhabited home at 734 Burlington Avenue has managed to evade the wrecking crews for years despite the persistent complaints of neighboring residents.

This dilapidated residence received its latest reprieve on Monday when the town’s board of aldermen declined to act on a proposed demolition ordinance in deference to the renovation plans of the home’s current proprietor. This move on the part of the aldermen has come as a crushing blow to residents like Stephen Efird, who had hoped to see the town’s leaders root out this perennial blight on their neighborhood.

Efird concedes that anyone who visits his own home at 736 Burlington Avenue can get an unbidden eyeful of this ramshackle domicile.

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A vacant brick house is located on the front of the 734 Burlington Avenue  lot, with the house proposed for demolition, and later granted permits for work, to the rear.

“You’ll see a dilapidated structure that sunk in the ground because the foundation has rotted and collapsed,” he elaborated. “The asbestos siding has been falling off for years…You’ll also see illegal repairs that [the property owner] has made even though he wasn’t supposed to go in there.”

Efird contends that the patchwork improvements which the dwelling presently boasts were made in apparent defiance of a condemnation order that a code enforcement officer had issued this past November. Since then, the homeowner has obtained renovation permits from the county’s inspections department that have persuaded the town’s board of aldermen to hold off on the home’s proposed demolition.

Yet, these recent developments barely brush the surface, according to Efird, who observes that his own struggles with the eyesore next-door began nearly two decades before the current property owner’s arrival.

[Story continues below.]

[See separate story in this edition on Efird being forcibly removed from Monday night’s (April 1) board of aldermen meeting:]


[State] custody case

Efird dates much of his aggravation over this dwelling back to its acquisition by Joel Gregory Fogelman, a convicted felon who is currently serving time in an Anson County detention facility.

According to county land records, Fogelman originally obtained an ownership stake in the property at in April of 2008. By then, the now 56-year-old had already amassed a long q.v. with the N.C Department of Correction, beginning with a jail stint in Guilford County after he was convicted as a habitual drunk driver in 1992.

In 2015, Fogelman was sent away for his longest stretch yet after his conviction on a felony-level charge of death by vehicle. According to the Department of Correction, Fogelman was eventually freed on December 15, 2022, only to have his parole revoked less than eight months later. His incarceration reportedly resumed on August 14, 2023 and continues to this day.

Fogelman’s property in Gibsonville seems to have gone to pot even more than before while he was serving time in the state’s custody. This degradation wasn’t lost on the housing inspectors at State Code Enforcement, Inc., or SCEI, which provides code enforcement services to Gibsonville. Yet, the homeowner’s incarceration also presented a bit of a dilemma for Dennis Pinnix, the president of this private Greensboro-based firm.

Pinnix admits that the code enforcement trade can be slow going in even the best of circumstances because anyone who acts on the government’s behalf is obliged to abide by the rules of due process.

“People have rights,” Pinnix explained in an interview Tuesday. “You can’t just jump in there and demolish somebody’s house without going through the process.”

The process that Pinnix and his colleagues must follow is spelled out in some detail within Gibsonville’s code of ordinances. Under these rules, the evaluation of any substandard dwelling begins with a preliminary investigation, which can lead to a formal complaint and notice. A hearing must then take place before the town’s housing inspector, who may hear evidence from neighbors as well as the property owner’s defense. Following this administrative hearing, the housing inspector will issue findings of fact as well as an order that either gives the property owner a chance to spruce up the place or orders its demolition.

Pinnix acknowledged that Fogelman’s incarceration threw the proverbial spanner into these well-ordered procedures.

“The guy who owned the home was in prison,” he recalled. “I went to the town attorney and I said ‘everyone is entitled to due process. But if we move forward with this while he was incarcerated, are we really giving him due process? The town attorney said ‘no.’”


Under new ownership

SCEI’s trouble reaching the homeowner was effectively resolved when Fogelman was released from prison in 2022. The newly-paroled inmate went on to unload his holdings in Gibsonville a few days before his incarceration resumed in August of the following year.

According to county land records, a Burlington-based limited liability corporation called M&E Realty purchased the property on August 11, 2023 for a sale price of $216,000.

Prior to M&E’s arrival, the blight-ridden parcel at 734 Burlington Avenue continued to draw complaints from Efird and other neighboring residents. One complaint was even lodged with the county’s inspections department in May of 2023. According to the department’s record of this case, the complaining party objected to the ramshackle state of a wooden two-story home, which reportedly featured a “sinking foundation” and loosening asbestos siding. The neighbor also pointed to the general disarray of the property, whose “junked cars, trailers [and] debry piles [sic]” apparently made a hospitable environment for rodents and snakes.

Although the county technically isn’t responsible for code enforcement in Gibsonville, one of its building inspectors nevertheless visited the property on September 13 and found that the dwelling, which “does not appear to be inhabited,” would “require intervention in order for safe inhabitation” to resume.

Within two months of the building inspector’s report, the property at 734 Burlington Avenue also came up for a hearing before one of SCEI’s code enforcement specialists. On November 8, Eric Clem, SCEI’s director of field services, issued the aforementioned demolition order, which instructed the property’s new owner to “demolish the structure no later than December 8, 2023,” pending the acquisition of a permit from the county’s inspections department.

[Story continues below photo of demolition order.]

Efird recalls that Clem’s administrative order seemed to open up new, more promising vistas to him and his neighbors.

“He told me I will have it knocked down in 30 days – bar none; end of story,” he added. “But how we got from the house being condemned to where we are now is a travesty of justice.”


Stay of execution

Although Clem’s demolition order included a 30 day deadline, Pinnix admitted that M&E Realty was ultimately given 90 days to comply in adherence to the timetable that appears in the town’s code of ordinances.

Under the relevant part of the code, a property owner has “up to 90 days” to follow through on an administrative demolition order. If no action takes place in that time, the case is handed off to town’s board of aldermen, which can adopt an ordinance to have the town raze the structure itself and tax the cost to the owner by attaching a lien to the property.

In the case of the substandard dwelling at 734 Burlington Avenue, the county’s inspections department has no record of anyone having sought a demolition permit – neither during the 90 day period nor since its elapse.  The county’s inspection records nevertheless show that three separate permits that Mario Quezada of M&E Realty obtained on March 5 of this year to renovate or remodel each of the three dwelling units at 734 Burlington Avenue.

By the time that the county issued these permits, Clem’s order for the home’s demolition had already given way to the next phase in the code enforcement process. In this particular case, Gibsonville’s governing board was slated to consider just such an ordinance at its regularly-scheduled meeting on March 4. But rather than, sign off on the ordinance and make way for the wrecking ball, the board of aldermen chose to take a different tack.

According to Gibsonville’s town manger Ben Baxley, the board’s members initially resolved to postpone their decision for a month after hearing from both Quezada and from some of the home’s frustrated neighbors.

“They tabled it at the March 4 meeting, and that was to get a better idea of what was going on,” Baxley recalled in an interview Wednesday. “The property owner also had materials to show that he has already invested $40,000 into the property.”

Efird, who was one of several frustrated neighbors present at that evening’s proceedings, offers a different account of the board’s actions on March 4. According to his recollection, the aldermen ignored the pleas that these residents shared during the meeting and overlooked Quezada’s apparent failure to do anything to comply with Clem’s demolition order.

“Month after month, he did not get a permit,” he added. “He denied all rules and all laws. He did nothing in those 90 days except sneak in illegally and do some things to the foundation so it wouldn’t fall down.”


A house divided

Within a day of the board’s meeting on March 4, Quezada managed to secure renovation permits from the county’s inspections department.

Pinnix insists that these county-level permits have to be a real game changer for the whole code enforcement case against 734 Burlington Avenue.

“Boom! That shot us out of the water,” he said. “Now, it’s entirely out of our hands because they’re working with the Alamance County inspections department, and they will make sure that nobody will occupy the property until everything is up to standard.”

Baxley likewise concedes that the town has little choice but to bide its time as long as the county’s renovation permits remain in effect.

“The permit’s good for one year,” the town manager added, “and as long as he’s completed some work, the permit remains active…It may not be what the neighbors wanted to hear. But that’s the position that we’re in.”

Meanwhile, Efird asserts that he no inclination to give way before this new reality – which he ultimately blames on the board’s alleged failure to fulfill its duties to the town’s residents.

“You were there to do one thing,” he said of Gibsonville’s aldermen. “That was to vote to demolish or not to demolish, and you did nothing.

“I’m going to stand up for the law and the people of this town,” Efird continued, “and I will not sit down until this street is beautiful again.”

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