GARRETT — DeKalb Superior Court I Judge Kevin Wallace Wednesday upheld a demolition order made more than a year ago for a Garrett residence.
The City of Garrett’s Unsafe Building Committee approved an order for demolition of a property at 513 E. Quincy St., owned by Terry Freeman and his sister, Lori Freeman, at a hearing on May 21, 2019.
The Freemans responded to a court order to appear before Judge Wallace on July 28, along with Garrett City Planner Milton Otero and attorney Darrick Brinkerhoff.
At the court session, Otero outlined an inspection of the interior and exterior of property in April 2019, with testimony from City of Angola building inspector Scott Lehman, after securing a warrant from Wallace.
Photos from inside and outside the property showed it to be a public nuisance, health and fire hazard to the public, and especially to those residing in the home, according to Otero’s report.
Photos showed side yards cluttered with debris and junk, abandoned vehicles in the backyard, and the exterior of the home in poor condition, including several broken windows and window casings.
The main portion of the interior of the home had piles of storage and debris, bowed and cracked plaster and lath ceilings, with exposed lath on the walls. Otero noted the home is on a 4% slope due to structure issues, and the bathroom toilet was full of waste and failed to function.
At a June 2019 hearing, the homeowners were offered the opportunity to refute any findings in the case, after which the authorities could affirm, modify or rescind the order to demolish. Neighboring homeowners appeared at a 45-minute hearing, which was not open to public comment.
Terry Freeman, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, told board members the home has been in the Freeman family for more than 100 years and was built by the railroad for his grandfather. He claimed the structure has been leaning for about 40 years due to improvements on the roadway in front of the home, but his father had no money to fix the problem.
At that meeting, the Freemans asked for the opportunity to fix the home that once was owned by their grandparents. The city statute allows 60 days for the tasks to be accomplished, at which time an extension could be given if progress is shown.
Members of Garrett’s Unsafe Building Committee expressed skepticism that additional time would accomplish what the city wanted to be done, but granted the family 60 days to present proof of substantial improvement by Aug. 4, 2019.
In August 2019, Otero submitted photos taken earlier in the day showing a front window had been removed and replaced with a tarp, and a broken, second-story window had been boarded up. The photos did not display many further improvements.
Brinkerhoff said he acknowledged and appreciated some landscaping improvements made during the 60 days, “but we are more interested in the structural integrity of the home. This is an unsafe building matter,” he said at the August 2019 session.
Based on its finding of facts, the board agreed to continue the order for demolition. Brinkerhoff said due to lag time for a 60-day notice to proceed with civil action and to work through the court system, the process could take as long as six months, resulting in the July 28 hearing in Superior Court I, nearly a year later.
At the court hearing, Terry Freeman defended his upgrades to the home, claiming to have spent $3,000 at Home Depot to buy windows, jacks and other construction materials following the extension for improvements. Work had been done to improve the landscaping in the front yard during that period.
When asked why the structural work was not done, Freeman said the city discouraged him from moving forward after he received a letter from city officials alleging improvements to his porch were not adequate to deal with structural issues at hand. When challenged by Brinkerhoff, neither Freeman nor his wife could produce documentation of that allegation from a pile of papers they brought to the trial.
Freeman said he was “disgusted” by harassment and discrimination in his efforts to secure contractors and to find legal counsel for the hearing, blaming neighbors, police, social media and newspaper articles he said shone badly on his situation. He added if his home were to be demolished, he would be rendered homeless and would camp out by City Hall downtown.
Lori Freeman, who lives in Auburn, testified she has not lived in the home since it was sold to them by an aunt for $1 following the death of their father in 2006. She paid half of the property tax bill the first year, after which her brother took over the taxes and utilities as the resident of the property. She claimed Freeman has not responded to her continued efforts to remove her name from the home’s ownership and said she has no interest in the property and has not been inside it.
Otero produced photos taken earlier and compared them to photos taken last year at the court hearing, showing much the same progress, with some clutter moved around to the back of the property. Freeman said he did not have the money to secure a receptacle to take away the debris, but one committee member noted he lives across the street from the city’s recycling bins and the site of a citywide cleanup last year.
Brinkerhoff concluded the city had heard nothing but excuses from Freeman regarding the situation and was unpersuaded as to why more time was needed for compliance following the court hearing.
Wednesday, Wallace ordered the residential structure should be demolished within 120 days. Terry Freeman and his family have 60 days to vacate the structure, and any and all items left behind inside the residential property shall be deemed to be abandoned, the order read.
The Freemans were ordered to remove or relocate any vehicles, boats, tires, mowers, lawn equipment and trailers from the real estate within 45 days of the order so demolition can be done without interference to the demolition crew.
The order provides costs of demolition should be rendered against the Freemans and become a lien on the real estate.
The City of Garrett can recover all enforcement costs after demolition, attorney fees, and fines against the defendants, according to the court order. Brinkerhoff is directed to report the costs to the court after demolition. The court will determine a fine based on the level of cooperation of the defendants to the order.
“The court recognizes that the enforcement of the May 21, 2019, order will result in extreme hardship to the family of Terry Lee Freeman,” the judgment says, “but according to the testimony of the experts employed or retained by Garrett, an even more tragic outcome may occur should the family be allowed to continue to occupy the premises.”