Hamilton may increase focus on empty business buildings

Recent fires at the former French Bauer Dairy building in Hamilton’s North End helped prompt city officials to develop legislation to require owners to register empty commercial and industrial buildings. GREG LYNCH/FILE

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Recent fires at the former French Bauer Dairy building in Hamilton’s North End helped prompt city officials to develop legislation to require owners to register empty commercial and industrial buildings. GREG LYNCH/FILE

If Hamilton City Council on Wednesday approves an ordinance requiring owners to register their empty commercial and industrial buildings, enforcement will start a month afterward.

The biggest goal is to have building owners secure their properties, so people don’t break in and start fires — accidentally or on purpose — that endanger neighboring properties and firefighters. Other big goals are to have contact information for those owners, and lockboxes with keys inside so city safety crews can enter for inspections.

Under the proposed legislation, owners or those who control the buildings will have to pay the city $400 to register a building for the first year it is empty. That fee would double each year that follows, up to a maximum of $6,400 per year in the fifth year and beyond.

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The fire chief, Mark Mercer, would be able to waive fees if certain conditions are met, which include if:

  • the building is actively under construction or renovation, with an active building permit;
  • the building is listed for sale with a licensed real estate agent, and there's a "For Sale" sign out front; or
  • it is 90 days after damage by a storm or fire.

A main goal, Mercer said, “is just a contact person who’s responsive. We’ve been reaching out to the owner (of the warehouse that burned in July) on Laurel Avenue, and I think they’ve been responsive one time. And the city, the citizens, have owned the cost of demolishing that building, just to make it safe.”

Another big goal of the legislation is to prod owners to board up buildings to make it harder for people to break in.

“If we have to go in and board up a window, or contract that out, just the cost of boarding up a window, with our least expensive way to go, is around $50. That is just a first-floor window,” Mercer said. “And if you say, ‘Well, what would it cost to secure that Laurel Avenue building?’ It would be in the thousands of dollars that the taxpayers would have to own the cost on.”

“The city just doesn’t have the resources — nor should we be expected to donate them — to secure those buildings,” Mercer said. “The owners who are not taking care of them are that drain on that system.”

If there is a building the city believes is vacant, owners would have the opportunity to demonstrate otherwise.

When a building is registered as vacant, firefighters know nobody is expected to be inside.

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Hamilton Small Business Development Specialist Mallory Greenham has told officials there are hundreds of commercial and industrial buildings that are not using utilities, indicating they are vacant.

Many city departments will be involved in the enforcement, Mercer said. “If we look at who’s in charge of enforcing vacant housing code right now, it’s the Health Department. And they’ll still have the responsibility for enforcing that,” although building owners will register their vacant structures with fire officials.

Some, including Ordinance Review Commission member Jeff Gambrell, have expressed concern the fees can lead owners to demolish industrial buildings that could find use in the future.

Mercer said city officials have been working to figure out what would be the best legislation for a long time — before the July 25 blaze at an empty warehouse in the Lindenwald neighborhood at 999 Laurel Ave. that damaged six houses and a business across streets.

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The warehouse fire “certainly reinforced that we need to focus on (the ordinance),” Mercer said.

“Any year, I can pick out a building that was vacant, that was un-maintained, that was unsecured, where we put our firefighters at risk to take care of it,” Mercer said in his 30 years with the city’s fire department.

City staff spent months “trying to find what is the right solution, to keep our neighborhoods safe, to keep our firefighters safe,” he said.

The effort was spurred by two fires at the former French Bauer Dairy building at 551 N. 6th St., which had been declared to be so unsafe inside that firefighters were not to enter it. That blaze damaged a home across 6th Street.

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“We didn’t have firefighter injuries,” Mercer said, “but we had a lot of time where all of our crews were committed to that fire, and certainly that’s what we’re there for, and that’s what our guys are prepared for every single day, but while we’re at that fire — realistically, it burned because it was unsecured, it was not taken care of — that took resources away from our community.”

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