Vacant building ordinance generates discussion

Friday, June 10, 2022
(Sentinel Photo by Beverly Van Buskirk) Vacant buildings such as these which currently sandwich Hotopp’s in downtown Le Mars are among those at the center of the proposed Vacant Building Ordinance in front of the city council.

LE MARS — A public hearing on a proposed Vacant Building Ordinance turned into a more than hour long discussion on the merits of having such an ordinance at the June 7 city council meeting.

In opening the hearing, Mayor Rob Bixenman read from the agenda, “Many property owners, the City of Le Mars, and the State of Iowa have invested a lot of money into our Downtown Historic District. This ordinance would apply only to properties within the national and state recognized Le Mars Downtown Historic District.

“As is the case with many historic downtowns, buildings are multi-story and constructed from property line to property line. A shared wall is common. Unless a building has been renovated, it is unlikely it conforms to building or fire safety standards. This ordinance would give some assurance to property owners that a vacant building meets minimum standards and is not a potential or immediate safety risk.”

John Meis, who owns property within the Historic District and is also a former city building code officer, started his comments by saying, “I don’t know why you need this thing, because you already have something on the books, Chapter 145 Building Maintenance Standards and Dangerous and Dilapidated Structures, on the books,” Meis said.

“If there’s somebody that’s not keeping up their buildings, and I understand this is going on because there are a couple of buildings downtown that aren’t being maintained, and all of a sudden you’re going to cover all buildings with this code, and personally I don’t need more government codes just because there’s a couple bad apples out there,” he continued.

Questioning the Need

Meis cited several areas with which he was concerned, including the vacant building permit and its fee, questioning the need for “an Iowa licensed real estate broker or salesperson” to list the building as for sale or lease, as opposed to a building owner posting a for rent or for sale sign in the window.

“There might be others that disagree with this, but I don’t like it,” he said.

City Administrator Jason Vacura said, “Yes, we already have Chapter 145, but I think this new chapter working with 145 covers more stuff.”

City Attorney Michael Murphy added, “It also allows access.”

Council member Clark Goodchild also questioned the “licensed” realtor or broker requirement in putting up a sign about the building’s availability.

Maintenance Standards Also Addressed

Meis also questioned the vacant building maintenance standards, such as turning gas, water and electric services off.

“When you put a code down, you’re putting it down for a long time and we may have an understanding, but it’s a piece of paper down here. It’s how the next guys are going to interpret it, and that’s why I don’t like putting more down on the books, because the next guy might have a total different flavor on it,” Meis said.

“I look at it differently than you are, with these two buildings,” said Murphy. “I look at it as a way for the city to get inside the building that’s vacant, make sure that the neighbor’s buildings are protected. I don’t think what we have on the books now allows us to do that.”

From Chamber’s View

Interim Chamber of Commerce Director Rich Ziettlow addressed the council saying, “I want to point out, this is to help get in the door of buildings that we cannot get a response from the owners. As you are aware, we have attempted to approach some of the business owners. We need some way to get inside the door. This type of vacant building ordinance gives us that and makes a lot of sense.”

He continued that since the last council meeting when the ordinance was introduced, people have been coming up and having conversations, asking what they can do.

“It has opened up the dialogue. From the chamber’s standpoint, and Main Street’s standpoint, we definitely support moving forward with this ordinance,” Ziettlow said.

Business Owner Weighs In

Downtown business owner Zach Sherlock then came forward.

He told the council since COVID, business has not been good.

“I’ve had probably three phone calls from people interested in buying it (a building he owns) one to purchase it for a fifth of what it’s worth,” he said.

“Nobody talked to me about it sitting empty. I agree with John, it seems like a bit of government overreach by the city, because we are trying to do something. We just don’t want to leave a building sit there empty, that’s not doing anybody any good,” he said. “But at the same time, where the economy is at, yeah, we’ve talked with the city, they wanted to get in and look at stuff and we did go.”

Council Addresses Concerns

With no other public comments, the comment time shifted to council members.

Goodchild asked Murphy if the code Meis cited could be changed to give access to the vacant buildings.

In turn, Vacura said not all problems can be seen from street level.

“There are other things you can’t see without gaining access to the building,” he said. “After looking at this for months, I think we can work with 145, but I don’t think one replaces the other, it just gives us a little bit more momentum to make sure things are done.”

Bixenman added it was never about being a punishment for having a vacant building.

It’s About Safety

Le Mars Fire-Rescue Chief David Schipper was asked for input, and said “This is about access. We need access to make sure it is safe. If you’ve called someone for two years and they haven’t answered, you need access.”

Goodchild also asked to talk about the term unoccupied.

He indicated a lot of the buildings have businesses on the main level, but those individuals never go upstairs. Most access to the upper levels are by exterior entrances.

Murphy said judging by level occupied to determine vacant was found to be overreach by the city.

Council member Mike Donlin asked about any sense of urgency to implement the ordinance.

An Ongoing Concern

Le Mars Main Street Director Lori French spoke up, saying there is not a sense of urgency, but the issue has been going on for years.

“Just the talk is doing exactly what we wanted it to do. We don’t want to have more legal stuff, that’s not the intent. The idea is to fill those buildings if you can, and we understand with the economy, but at least bring it up to the standards of the downtown,” she said.

“Le Mars takes such pride in everything we do that seeing those buildings with the storefronts not painted or such, that’s what we’re looking for,” she continued. “We’ve talked with Zach and he has some wonderful ideas.”

She pointed out a popup shop has moved into the old Penney building.

“We’re just looking for something to happen and it has. That was the intent of Main Street,” she said.

Moving Forward

Following still more discussion, Murphy went over proposed changes that had come forward during the discussion.

After that, council member Steve Wick made a motion to adopt the first reading of the ordinance, subject to changes as referenced. There was no second and motion failed.

Murphy then posed the question to the council, “Now what if anything, do you want city staff to do in reference to this ordinance. Do you want to see it in a new form as a new first reading, or do you want to see an amended one, if that is even possible.”

Council member Mark Sturgeon said coming back with a clean version would give the council another opportunity for public comment.

With that said, city staff will work on the recommended changes and bring a new version to the council.

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