By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — In the opinion of the village’s attorney, the ordinances that Colfax has on the books do not support condemning the Felland house located at the corner of First Avenue and Pine Street.
The Colfax Village Board discussed the situation at the July 28 meeting, and board members concluded that Jackie Ponto, village administrator-clerk-treasurer, should seek an opinion from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.
Last December after inspecting the house, certified building inspector Fred Weber of Weber Inspections said he became concerned the roof was going collapse.
The attic is constructed with a certain kind of attic truss with extra two-by-fours that divide the attic into three sections, Weber said.
If the attic were constructed with ordinary trusses, the roof would have collapsed already, he said.
Be that as it may, the roof is leaking, and the homeowner has put tarps on the attic floor, causing water to drain down the walls, Weber said.
The tarps make a bad situation worse because with all of the rain this spring and summer, Weber is concerned that the walls are saturated.
The question then becomes: “will the walls hold up a new roof?” Weber said.
Village officials say they are concerned for the homeowner’s safety.
The roof on the south side of the house has already collapsed in one area, and there are small trees growing out of the shingles.
The village board’s property committee discussed the situation several weeks ago with Weber and instructed Ponto to ask the village’s attorney for his opinion on the village’s legal standing to condemn the house or issue a repair order.
According to a July 9 letter from John Higley of Higley, Schofield and Mayer, “Unless there is a backstory on Mr. Felland, I doubt that section (on unsafe buildings in the ordinances) would apply, given that he’s lived there the last six plus months. That section requires, among other things, that it’s ‘unfit for human occupancy,’ and that it would ‘be unreasonable to repair’ and that it must be ‘razed and removed.’ None of that seems to apply from the information I have.”
The letter goes on to say, following Higley’s review of other sections of the ordinances, “I’m doubtful that a hole in the roof constituted a structural strength defect much less a ‘menace to public safety.’”
Higley also reviewed the nuisance ordinances.
“Again, they don’t, in my opinion, fit. This may be a case of an eyesore to neighbors and/or not the ‘picture’ the village wants to project, but neither makes for an ordinance violation.”
After receiving Higley’s letter, Ponto e-mailed the attorney to say she had received the letter but that she still needed advice.
“Mr. Felland’s house is rotting around him, and the Village does not want to see the house cave in with him in it. We are looking for a suggestion on where to go from here. Do we need to have someone look at it, like a contractor? Or call Human Services? Our building inspector was there in January and does feel that it is unfit. I guess what I am saying is that we need to take the next step if there is one and need a legal opinion on how to proceed.”
In his reply to Ponto, Higley said he had consulted with his partners, Ken Schofield and Chris Mayer, and all three agreed that there is little the village can do about the situation.
“We all agree that at this point there is no ordinance enforcement ability.
“I’m assuming Mr. Felland is elderly. Is he capable? Generally, if a person is competent, if their lifestyle is not spilling out onto the street … and there are no minor children in the home, they’re allowed to live as they please.
“If he has relatives, I’d reach out to them first. If he doesn’t, or they won’t help, try human services. If he’s capable, there is little they can do. Maybe a referral to Westcap for roof repair. He’d need to be a danger to himself or others before human services can help much.
“Understand, that if he is incompetent, and is placed under guardianship, you may have that house empty, and falling down for some time.”
Ponto says she believes it would be a violation of privacy for the village to contact the homeowner’s relatives.
By murmurs of agreement and the nodding of heads, most of the Colfax Village Board appeared to agree with Ponto that it would not be ethical to contact relatives.
“He keeps to himself, (and contacting relatives) would be crossing the line. The attorney says people can live how they want,” said Scott Gunnufson, village president.
Ponto said she has an application from the United States Department of Agriculture for a grant and that she would be willing to approach the homeowner and help him fill out the grant application for funds to fix the house.
Ponto said, however, that she doubts the amount of the grant would be enough to pay for fixing the house.
“If we don’t move quickly, here comes winter again,” said Mark Halpin, village trustee.
Often in the fall before it turns cold, there is a rainy period, he noted.
The house already has “issues of stability, and it will not improve. We need to do something in a positive way to help him,” Halpin said.
“We can’t just sit here and let the building fall in,” Ponto said.
Weber said he had checked with the county and that the 2012 property taxes had not been paid and that the first installment this year had not yet been paid.
Ponto wondered if it would be helpful to refer the matter to Dunn County human services.
If the village’s ordinances do not support condemning the house, then the village should consider changing the ordinances, Gunnufson said.
“There are other rentals (in Colfax) that are health hazards,” he said.
Lisa Fleming, an engineer with Ayres Associates who attended the meeting in regard to the Fourth Avenue project, wondered if the house could be considered a fire hazard.
Fleming also noted that the ordinances may be unenforceable because they do not define what is unfit for human occupancy and do not define what would constitute being unreasonable to repair.
Earlier this year, the Colfax Village Board struggled with the ordinances and a complaint about an “unsightly” property.
Just as “unsightly” would be in the eye of the beholder, what one person thinks is “unfit for human occupancy,” another person might think is just fine.
Weber noted with the amount of rain that has fallen this year, he would suspect the house is full of mold.
“I don’t know how he is able to breathe in there,” he said.
The Colfax Village Board agreed Ponto should check with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities for another opinion on the village’s ordinances and for advice on changing the ordinances to make them enforceable.