Graffiti-covered house considered nuisance
JASPER -- Covered with graffiti, broken windows and fire damage, what was once a nice home at 121 West Third Street in Jasper has been an eye-sore and a source of irritation to the city and residents for more than a year. But now it has been declared a public health nuisance as well.
According to Nobles-Rock Community Health Services (NRCHS) Sanitarian Jason Kloss, his office was given clearance by Jasper City Attorney Jeff Haubrich to write a letter to the owner, giving them 10 days to respond or get the house repaired. If the owners don't respond, the city can step in.
The house was damaged in a fire in May 2007, after the residents had lived there for about a year, according to Chris Westerbur, who lives next door with her two-year-old son, mother and step-father. Before the residents abandoned the house, they covered the outside walls in graffiti -- including statements that degrade the town and the people of Jasper.
"They did the graffiti themselves, right before our town celebration," Westerbur said. "Some people tried to cover up the really bad words, but the kids came back during the celebration and redid some of the obscene words while people were watching."
The house, located across the street from the city park, was abandoned shortly after the fire, with the residents only stopping back a time or two to gather some belongings.
"The day it burned, they all happened to be out of the house," Westerbur said. "They came back while the fire department was working on it. They all sat in the back driveway and watched, smiling."
The odor of mold coming from the abandoned house is very strong, and when the breeze is blowing in the right direction, Westerbur said, her own home fills with the smell. And the smell isn't the only problem. Living next to a house covered with such horrible graffiti, she said, is embarrassing.
The graffiti consists of not only obscenities, which have once again been obscured, but puts down the town of Jasper and contains swastikas and Insane Clown Posse faces and phrases such as "killa clown" and "ICP."
"They listened to a lot of that and talked about the Dark Carnival and things like that," Westerbur explained.
Westerbur's step-father, Jeff Leslie, not only lives next to the abandoned house, he is the Jasper fire chief and was present on May 4, 2007, when the house next to his was on fire. Leslie said it looked as if someone had tried to start a fire in two places inside the house.
He and his wife are frustrated with the smell of burnt wood and mold that wafts strongly from the house and disgusted to know the house is now a domicile for stray cats.
"It is awful and I'm sick of it," he said. "We've been trying to get something done for over a year."
The fire marshal who looked the house over after the blaze said the house was not damaged badly enough during the blaze to condemn, Leslie said. He believes the mold in the house next to his may be the reason his young grandson has been getting sick more often.
"I don't know for sure it's the cause, but it certainly isn't helping any," he explained.
Both Leslie and Westerbur said there is rumor that the people who lived in the house came from Dell Rapids, S.D., where another home they had owned burned, earning them a healthy insurance check.
Jasper Clerk/Treasurer Kris Rodman said the city has been trying to get the house taken care of for some time, but they have no way of contacting the owner. They don't even know where she lives. It was the owner's daughter, however, who lived in the house with her teenaged children. She now lives somewhere in the Sioux Falls, S.D. area, Rodman believes, and has been contacted numerous times about the house.
"What makes me mad is that the fire marshal figures it was arson, and they apparently have a history of that kind of thing," Rodman stated. "Why can't they just put that person away?"
The owner's daughter did come to one city council meeting in September 2007 and told the council the house would be taken care of, but nothing ever came of that, Rodman said.
The city has had to put money and time into the house -- cleaning up the yard and keeping the lawn mowed -- but was hesitant to put any more funding into the house than necessary, without knowing what the future held for the property.
"They still own it," Rodman explained.
It seemed the city was destined to wait until the house finally went for tax forfeiture -- which is generally a seven year process, but in this case would have been sooner, since the owners were already four to five years in arrears -- but then NRCHS stepped in.
"Between the fire, the accessibility to animals, odor and debris, it's a health nuisance to the community," Kloss explained. "Frankly, the city has worked with the owners for 15 months to try to get them to address the issues, but they have failed to do so. The current owners don't seem to be giving the city much choice in the matter."
If the person named on the property tax rolls can not be located, a letter will be posted on the door of the house. If no one comes forward to take responsibility, NRCHS has the authority to go ahead with the abatement of the nuisance. In this case, that means the house will probably be destroyed. The cost of doing so will be assessed back to the owner, and if the property is not claimed, it will eventually belong to the city, Kloss said.
"It is a shame -- I'd rather have a livable house than empty lot," Kloss stated. "It could have been saved after the fire, but now it would take a lot of money to get it back to being livable."