Hamilton officials hope new law improves up to 200 empty buildings

Officials in Butler County’s largest city hope a new law they now are enforcing can have somewhere close to the impact a similar one in Sandusky did in the past decade.

Hamilton adopted a law requiring owners to register warehouses and other commercial buildings that are empty in October. Officials believe there are 100 to 200 such buildings.

Officials this month started enforcing the new law, which requires owners make it possible for city safety workers to enter at any time and pay annual fees that climb if they aren’t actively developing the properties or putting them up for sale. They also must keep the buildings secure from intruders and the elements.

In Sandusky, a city of about 25,000 on the shoreline of Lake Erie and home to the Cedar Point amusement park, there were about 115 empty commercial buildings in 2010, when officials began enforcing a similar ordinance.

Steve Rucker, Sandusky’s fire marshal, says it has been “extremely” helpful in filling those buildings or tearing them down: “As of 2020, we are currently sitting on 11 vacant structures,” he said.

When enforcement started, “We had a few guys that were on light duty, so we had some manpower that we could send out on the street to basically catalog those structures that had been identified through our inspection program that no longer had occupants.”

With that list of about 115 properties, the city mailed the owners notices.

“It was a life-safety issue, originally,” Rucker said. “Firefighters and police, you get a call, say there’s a structure fire in a building. That building has not been secured for several years, open to the elements and vandals. So guys rush in, because they believe it’s a life-safety issue, and they fall through floors, stairs may be missing.”

Such buildings and their dangers have other costs at the empty warehouse in Lindenwald that burned in 2019, Hamilton code-enforcement employees spent 285 hours responding to 55 calls since 2014. Police took 17 calls of suspicious activity or trespassing during that time.

Sandusky conducts regular inspections of the properties to assess their latest condition. Rucker is accompanied on those visits by a police officer, from code enforcement and a city community development employee.

The development staffer while there assesses parts of the property that may make it more attractive to potential buyers, such as an auto-service garage that is equipped already with compressors and vehicle lifts. That helps the city let potential out-of-town buyers know what’s available in town when the people call, Rucker said.

In Sandusky, like Hamilton, the yearly registration fee for an empty building is $400, which doubles annually up to a maximum of $6,400. That fee remains $6,400 per year until the building is occupied or demolished. The fire chief can waive the fee for a property when there is significant movement to occupy a structure.

Hamilton Small Business Development Specialist Mallory Greenham said the registration program is online on the city’s website under the fire department’s tab, with all the necessary forms.

“It’s live,” she said.

Rucker said enforcing the law was not why he became a firefighter.

“We all get into it for the adrenaline rush, and looking forward to riding on the truck with the lights and sirens,” he said. “And then I found myself doing something that felt pretty good.”

“It had a profound effect on our city, the rippling effect, knowing I was going home at night and the buildings that were not being utilized were secured, so that if we did get a call, at least the guys had some forewarning as to any hazard that may be in the building,” he said.

Firefighters also could be confident people weren’t in the secured buildings, and could fight fires with a more defensive approach, rather than sending people inside, he said.

Demolitions of some of the buildings typically was done with federal Community Development Block Grant funds, and “that’s been huge,” he said.

There were a few battles about tearing down buildings that “no longer serve a purpose, but they have some historical significance,” he said. In some cases, plaques were put up on their places.

“But bringing down this eyesore was definitely good for the city,” he said.

The city of Sandusky itself took three abandoned downtown buildings and reused them, including a former bank with high ceilings that now is City Hall.

“That building I remember walking through originally,” Rucker added. “The roof had collapsed in on one section. The water had been running in there for years.”

“You definitely see the city believed in their own program, and it’s proof that it works,” he said.

It’s important for all the involved city departments to work closely together and give businesses the same messages, Rucker said, because otherwise, owners will try to do the least expensive thing they are told to do.

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