Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

May 7, 2013

Public hearing extended; building could stand for months


Knoxville — The owner of the property at 110 East Robinson, Susan Vincent, was unable to attend Monday night's Knoxville City Council meeting, and thus, did not participate in the public hearing she had requested. As a courtesy to Vincent, the hearing remains open and will resume in council chambers Thursday night, May 9, at 6:15 p.m. 

Vincent requested the hearing in regard to orders from the City to have the building demolished within 14 days of condemnation. The building was condemned after a March 25 fire, deemed to be arson, though the building had previously been condemned on Nov. 1, 2012, four months prior to the fire. 

Vincent, nor her attorney was represented at Monday's meeting. City Manager Harold Stewart told the council that she was unable to attend. He and City Attorney Bob Stuyvesant recommended the council leave the hearing open until such time as Vincent could attend.

Following the open portion of Monday's meeting, Stewart said Stuyvesant advised him to keep the meeting open as a "courtesy." They believe that if the council would have closed the hearing, without Vincent addressing them, it would have reflected poorly upon the City and a lawsuit would likely have been filed. The City and Vincent are already involved in litigation filed by the City. Though Vincent was not there, the public hearing was held, with people sharing their concerns.

"I'm angry because I'm displaced," Sundance Realty Broker/Owner Kathy Caviness told the council. "My agents are displaced." 

Caviness' building is next to 110 East Robinson, and was damaged during the fire. The building and basement were flooded with water used to fight the fire. The City has acknowledged that the Sundance building has been "compromised" and nothing can be done to repair that building until 110 Robinson is addressed. 

The need to demolish 110 East Robinson was stressed by Caviness' contractor, Shawn Ealy. Ealy told the council that joists and rafters in the Sundance building are tied to a common wall with 110 East Robinson. 

"Eventually, high winds or a storm will cause that to come down," Ealy said. 

"(Vincent has) had 14 months to do something," Caviness said. She expressed her anger that, despite being responsible and having insurance, she is being punished by Vincent's actions. 

The day of the fire, Sundance Realty moved into the old Our Town Florist building on the corner of Robinson and First. This building is owned by Iowa State Savings Bank, which is actively seeking a buyer. Caviness is currently renting the building. The rent is covered by insurance. However, Caviness told the council that if the building sells, she has 90 days to be out of the building and added that the insurance will not continue to cover her rent indefinitely. 

Concern about the sight of the burned out shell that is 110 East Robinson was also raised, given that Knoxville will be showcased during the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa in late July. Robinson Street businesses also have the upcoming Streetscape project that could affect business, and work done on buildings overall. Caviness said it has been six weeks since the fire and asked the council, "How long can we wait?"

"Every day that passes, I'm in a more difficult position," Caviness said. "I'm being penalized for somebody who doesn't give a crap." 

Caviness spoke once more during the hearing, to reiterate her appreciation to the fire department and other City crews for their quick response and assistance since the fire. 

"Time is probably not in the favor of having the building there," Dwight Johnston added. He was there with the owner of the other neighboring building to 110 East Robinson, Jean Peterson. Johnston said when it rains, water also runs down Peterson's walls and mold is becoming a problem. 

Diane Cartwright, an agent with Sundance, told the council that if the business is forced to close due to the fire, the town wll lose a group of people who tout Knoxville to others. She added that the business is an asset to Knoxville. 

"We've had no comment from the property owner," Stewart said. He said he shares the concerns expressed and referred to 110 East Robinson as "an ugly cavity." Staff wants to respond quickly, but the City has no right to confiscate the property and tear it down without due process. 

At first, the hearing's extension may have been through the next regular council meeting. Councilor Carolyn Formanek suggested having a special meeting on Thursday, as opposed to waiting two more weeks. Stuyvesant said that would be fine, as long as Vincent's attorney was notified. 

"The only person not waiting is the owner," Formanek said. 

"(Vincent has) had 14 months," Councilor Tim Pitt said. "Fourteen days is plenty. I would close the hearing." 

"She already had 14 days," Stuyvesant added. "I've dealt with this building before." 

If the City has to wait for the judicial process for action to be taken, it could take more months to have the building removed. Stuyvesant said he understands the situation, the urgency the City and Sundance feel to remove the blight, but it is still somebody's property. 

"It was a public hazard a year and a half ago," Tim VerMeer, another Sundance agent, said. 

Even if the City takes over ownership of the property, it is possible there are liens against it, for which the City would become liable, Stuyvesant added. According to a letter to the City, Vincent has a demolition bid of $60,000, which could double if there is asbestos in the building. The City has not budgeted for any such expenses. 

Assistant City Manager Dylan Feik explained that the first time the City went in, it was based upon nuisance issues. He added that, after the fire and a lack of response from the owner, they felt giving her 14 days to demolish the building was justified. Access to the building was denied for five days after the fire during the Fire Marshal's investigation. 

The hearing will reopen at 6:15 p.m. Thursday, May 9, in the council chambers. Check back to after the meeting for a full report. 

In other action, several proclamations were made by Mayor Don Zoutte. Photos of these proclamations and other actions from the meeting accompany this article.