WINTER HAVEN – Restoration and code enforcement are two processes that take time.
Mikki Lawlor is learning that the hard way.
Lawlor teaches Pilates at the Ballet Conservatory Dance Centre, 505 Ave. I NW, a building that his family has owned since 1983. Most of Lawlor’s Pilates clients are older people, while the dance studio downstairs caters to children as young as 4.
Since a trio of hurricanes hit the area in 2004, Lawlor said he’s been looking nearby at dilapidated buildings, broken windows, overgrown lots, roofs covered with tarps for years and one house significantly damaged by fire. He’s also noted that it has devalued his workplace.
Lawlor said there have been times in the past when people have hid in bushes at the studio and made remarks toward clients. More children are likely to be in the area come Feb. 1 when Gueline Gbobo opens Children’s Day Academy.
“There’s a threat of people who have bad intentions,” Lawlor said. “We have infants to people in their 90s coming in."
The owner of that burned home and five others in the area, Dawn Campbell, says she is part of the solution. In 2007, Campbell came from Queens to purchase six homes within 300 feet of the Ballet Conservatory. When she first purchased the homes, Campbell said, the properties were unsecured and vagrants were common.
“There were vagrants here, but we’ve gotten rid of them,” Campbell said. “The police have been working with us.”
Of the six properties owned by Campbell, two have been restored and have tenants. She said it won’t be long before a third is ready to be rented out. Campbell said each of the six homes would have been restored had it not been for a holdup early on.
Campbell said a contractor to work on one of the properties put an unlawful lien against the home, claiming that he was not compensated for his work on the dwelling. Campbell said she spent six years and tens of thousands of dollars fighting litigation, and during that time, she didn’t have the means to have work done on the properties.
“We knew from the beginning that it was an unlawful lien,” Campbell said. “They finally ruled in our favor that it was an unlawful lien. We ended up paying the contractor $17,000 just to go away.”
To demo or not to demo?
On July 20, code violations on Campbell’s properties at 514 and 525 Ave. J NW were heard by a magistrate. The property at 514 was brought into compliance and no fines were assessed. The property at 525 was severely burned by a contractor mishap five years ago.
“It’s a long, drawn-out process,” said Jamie Brown, a spokeswoman with the Winter Haven Police Department, which oversees code compliance. “We give the property owners ample notice. There are multiple steps that have to be taken. We don’t want to tear people’s properties away. Doing aesthetically pleasing things is a big step.”
At the July hearing, which Lawlor attended, Campbell was given 10 days to bring the home into compliance or be assessed fines of $250 per day. As of the second week in December, those fines exceeded $32,000. There is a demolition hearing set for Thursday.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Lawlor said. “It has been scheduled for demolition at least four times. They called it a first offense in July (at a magistrate hearing) and believe me, it was not a first offense. It has never in a decade been under code.”
The burned house was built in 1920 and has historical value, Campbell said. She said her work crews had begun working on the roof, but when Hurricane Irma hit in September, all the progress was undone.
“I love this house,” Campbell said of the burned structure. “I don’t want to tear it down, but if I have to, I will.”
Lawlor said he would be able to understand allowing the building to stay if it were surrounded by other houses that were neglected, but the property is less than a mile from downtown.
“I’m a huge proponent of what’s going on downtown, and I love Winter Haven,” Lawlor said. “(The house) doesn’t fit there. It’s a rotten plum in the middle of a field of oranges. It’s something that’s very easily dealt with. Code enforcement, I believe, is trying hard, but they’re not getting it done.”
Brown acknowledged that the process of demolition can take years and is a last resort. To get a demolition order, one must contact the owner and request an interior inspection to see whether it is condemnable. If inspection is denied, an inspection warrant must be obtained, and if a building official declares the property condemnable, the demolition process can then begin.
“It’s no fault of anyone that he feels this way,” Brown said of Lawlor. “We have to take every step to make sure the process is followed directly. There are codes in place for a reason.”
If the code-enforcement fines are greater than the value of the property, the city can seize control of the property, but that’s a route it rarely goes, Brown said. Brown said that can cost between $15,000 and $40,000 in legal fees. Things like paying off the remaining mortgages and owners contesting the seizure would only complicate those matters. The current value of the property with the burned house, according to the Polk County Property Appraiser, is $33,150.
Last month, the Board of County Commissioners adopted a foreclosure policy that sets guidelines for foreclosures of properties with code-enforcement liens. The policy is intended to speed up the process. The properties must be non-homestead, the lien amounts must exceed the value, the property must be out of compliance for more than 30 days and a magistrate must approve the foreclosure.
During last year’s dry spell, commissioners in multiple Polk cities adopted the county’s burn-ban policy. Autumn Fenton, director of the county’s code-enforcement division, doesn’t see why city bodies would not be able to opt in to this policy as well.
“If you have dilapidated buildings, there’s a criminal element that says no one cares about the property, ‘so I’ll just hang out here,’ ” Brown said, speaking generally. “We would prefer for them to take care of it.”
Katie Worthington, president and CEO of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, said for downtrodden areas, there is a blueprint for success already in place. Worthington noted the Downtown Oaks project that started two years ago.
Worthington said a chamber intern and a Florida Southern College student explored nearly 200 parcels in that neighborhood, examining the rates of crime, unoccupied properties, multi-family units, zoning codes and other things and compiled the data. Professor Charles Duval’s MBA class of about 50 students at FSC examined the data and gave recommendations for revitalizing the area.
In July, the City Commission approved code changes to make the area more development friendly. At a later date, the commission will vote on an infrastructure project that addresses sidewalks, roads, lighting and adds rain gardens. Worthington said it’s a work in progress, but developers are already inquiring about properties in the area.
“I completely understand people like Mikki’s frustration,” Worthington said. “It’s a frustrating situation, admittedly. The things that are being implemented in Downtown Oaks is something that I think can be replicated.”
Worthington added that other cities have adopted nuisance-abatement ordinances, which assess owners not only for city costs for bringing properties into compliance, but for other activities on the property that could be considered detrimental to the public.
“It has been over a decade,” Lawlor said. “I know the police can only do so much. I really do feel like it’s a dangerous situation.”
Mike Ferguson can be reached at Mike.Ferguson@directgates.com or 863-401-6981. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeWFerguson.