City Council soon will consider whether to require owners to register their vacant industrial or commercial buildings. The goal is to help ensure they aren’t fire hazards, they are sealed up from the elements and people who may break in, and don’t create blight in their neighborhoods.
The proposed Hamilton ordinance comes weeks after one such building, a warehouse in Lindenwald at 999 Laurel Ave., allegedly was set on fire July 25, causing a massive blaze that created such heat it would have burned down surrounding houses if firefighters had not quickly started to pour water on them. A Hamilton teen faces multiple charges, including aggravated arson.
When a building becomes vacant, the owner or person in control of it must pay $400 to register it, for the first year it is empty. That fee would double each following year up to a maximum of $6,400 a year in the fifth year and beyond.
The city fire chief would have the ability to void the fees under certain conditions, including if the building is under active construction or renovation, with an active building permit, or if it is listed for sale with a licensed Ohio real estate agent. Properties that have been damaged by fire or storms also would be exempted for 90 days.
Under the proposed ordinance, owners would have to install lock boxes on the buildings, or parts of buildings, that are vacant so fire officials would have access to the inside. That also would give the firefighters the ability to inspect the interiors to see whether the floors are sound and other factors that would be helpful to know during a fire.
The city’s Ordinance Review Commission recently considered the proposed legislation and voted to pass it on to the city council.
Some have expressed concerns about the legislation.
The city has had a number of recent fires in vacant buildings, including the Lindenwald warehouse, the former Beckett Paper complex north of the downtown, and a dairy building that prompted the legislation because of the dangers such fires pose to firefighters and neighbors.
Hamilton administrators in creating the proposed ordinance spoke with the Ohio cities of Sandusky, Ashtabula and Millersburg.
Mallory Greenham, the city’s small business development specialist, said Hamilton has hundreds of commercial and industrial buildings that have no utilities, indicating they are vacant.
Sandusky using similar legislation reduced its number of such empty buildings from about 100 to one-tenth that number or less, the ordinance review commission was told.
In Sandusky, “they were able to get those buildings either reactivated, on the market and sold to a better purpose or if they were in such bad shape, demolished,” Greenham said. “It’s a way to combat blight, it’s a way to keep our police and fire department safe.”
Jeff Gambrell, a citizen member of the ordinance review commission, expressed concerns about the legislation.
“I know our goal is hopefully we don’t have a property vacant for five years or longer, but reality is, we do,” Gambrell said. “My concern arises from the idea that we have a lot of industrial buildings that have been vacant for years that have a lot of potential, and I’m afraid what this is going to do is lead people to demolish the buildings.”
“One of the buildings that comes to mind is Champion Paper, which was vacant for a number of years,” he added. “If the decision had been made to demolish that building, we wouldn’t have Spooky Nook (the proposed gigantic indoor sports complex and convention center) in development like we have today.”
Other properties like that are Beckett Paper and a railroad station downtown, he said. He said he would hate to see such buildings razed because out-of-state owners don’t want to have to pay up to $6,400 per year in fees, he said. “But I agree there has to be a registration process for sure, absolutely.”
Hamilton real-estate agent Phil Morrical, a former chairman of the Ohio Realtors Commercial/Industrial Committee, said he considered the legislation unnecessary
“There’s no need for it” because the city already has such authority, he said.
In the case of the Lindenwald warehouse, for example, it had just been sold, and the owner planned to rehabilitate it, Morrical said.
“They can’t take care of their own properties, much less worry about everybody else’s,” he said.
Another Hamilton real-estate agent, Bob Kugler of Bowling & Kugler Realty, was not familiar with the proposed legislation, so was unable to comment definitively about it and the proposed fees.
“I don’t know the whole situation” to have an opinion about it, Kugler said.
On the other hand, “If there’s vacant buildings that aren’t being taken care of, they should require them to be secured,” Kugler said. “If they don’t abide by the rules, maybe there’s some kind of fine or something, but I don’t know if we need an inspection fee.”
Kugler noted the former Beckett Paper building has sat empty for years, with nothing happening.
“Maybe it would help get some of these owners that are abusing things, just letting them sit, either get them sold or do something with them,” Kugler said.
City Council in 2017 considered legislation that would have required inspections of apartments, but backed away from that concept when angry landlords objected to it. The proposed commercial/industrial legislation would not affect apartments.