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Abandoned homes and mobile homes in Depot Road area north of Madras have raised safety concerns

HOLLY SCHOLZ/MADRAS PIONEER
 - City and county officials want building codes enforced at Tops Trailer Park north of Madras.

The Jefferson County Board of Commissioners and the Madras City Council have been working on a plan to address residences that aren't up to code, especially those that pose a fire hazard.

The conversation began at a joint meeting of the two bodies Sept. 23.

The county asked for the two to work together after an adjacent property owner in the Depot Road area complained. There are a few abandoned homes, as well as mobile homes at Tops Trailer Park, that have raised safety concerns.

Jurisdiction for the properties varies. Tops Trailer Park is not in the Madras city limits, but some properties on Cleveland Street and one Habitat for Humanity House are in the city.

At the same time, Tops is an area that falls under an agreement between the city and county.

"I think it's time the city started enforcing its code," City Councilor Royce Embanks said at the Sept. 23 meeting. "The enforcement should be on the owner of the property to clean it up because we can't go on bailing every owner of property out."

Nick Snead, the city's community development director, said he needs the support of the county building official and the Jefferson County Fire District Chief Brian Huff to interpret building code so that the city can take action.

Huff said he was willing to look at the properties and report those that are unsafe.

"It's very easy for us to work together on this," he said. "It's a problem that just keeps recurring."

City Administrator Gus Burril said the situation at Tops is complex. The property owner often sells a trailer to a low-income family who can barely afford the rent.

"Are we ready to kick out a family?" he said. "And where do they go?"

One option would be for the city of Madras to annex Tops Trailer Park, but no one was ready to move forward quickly with that.

But they did want to take action.

"If the next fire at Tops took the life of a child, we would all be guilty of not taking action, so let's get with it," County Commissioner Mae Huston said.

On Oct. 13, the Madras City Council revisited the issue.

Burril said the city needs to determine which agencies need to be involved and what the goal is.

Snead met with the county's building official and Huff, and they created documentation to track each space and trailer and the code violations associated with each, he said.

He said the agreement between the city and county needs to be updated.

"The challenge is that, you know, the details matter," Snead said. "They really do. It's hard to work through some of this."

He said he appreciated the county's community development director, Phil Stenbeck, and his willingness to work to understand the issues.

Snead said both need to be thoughtful in their approach, but there are some code changes that can be done quickly, and the council was expected to look at them Tuesday night.

"We will adopt changes so that if and when we annex the Tops Trailer Park and any other mobile home park into the city, we'll have better standards in place," Snead said.

He said the county did a detailed investigation of each space at the park a year ago.

"The violations are known," Snead said. "They have illegal structures that have been constructed." That includes porches that have been built on and are being used as living space, as well as boarded up windows.

Embanks said he drove to the trailer park earlier that day.

"There is not a single trailer that I could tell was able to be moved anywhere without dismantling it or putting it on a flatbed," he said.

If the city looks at each trailer's code violations, it could take years, he said.

He described the area as a "war zone ... or a dump."

Councilor Jennifer Holcomb said, "I think it's important to recognize that these are people's homes."

Councilor Bartt Brick said he wanted to understand how annexing the trailer park would affect the city's ability to do code enforcement and help the residents.

"Whether we do an annexation or not, that place is still going to be up there, and it's still going to have all those problems," Embanks said. "If something is not done, we'll still be talking about it in 20 years."

Brick echoed Holcomb's comments.

He said he had lived in a trailer park that was not much different than Tops.

"These are also people that live here, and they are victims to some extent, and we need to keep in mind that part of our job is helping them, maybe the majority of our job," he said.

Councilor Rose Canga suggested helping the residents organize and implementing their suggestions.

County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen said the county is committed to working with the city.

"We need to figure out what the plan is," he said. "It is a mixed history up there for sure."

He said he has worked for the county since 2007 and is disappointed in himself for not following through on some of the plans that were started.

"And at some point, there needs to be a transition from rural — because that's what we do — to urban — because that's what you guys do," Rasmussen said.

He added that the city is in charge of planning and code enforcement. The county can work in rights of way and make sure trailers are not encroaching on the rights of way.

Rasmussen said the county is meeting with Huff twice a month and hoped the city would attend as well.

"From the county's perspective, we're very interested in going at it, being fair and equitable to those people who are living up there," he said.

Rasmussen suggested starting with the trailers where the residents are renters.

"I feel more confident in taking a stronger stand because it's similar to a hotel room," he said. And the property owner can't claim not to have the money to fix problems while charging rent.

Snead said the county needs to adopt the same regulations the city has for mobile home parks. Then questions of jurisdiction wouldn't be an issue.

Stenbeck said the county needs to prioritize different types of violations "from the highest threat to life to the ones that just need building permits," he said.

"If you don't start, you can't finish," Brick said. "... So what you do is you find one where they're renting the trailer, and you go and you enforce aggressively."

He added that finding the people another place to live should be a priority.

"It seems to me you have enough information to start," he said.

Holcomb asked how many of the trailers were owner-occupied.

Rasmussen said the tax rolls show that, but owners don't always care if they have a title.

"Because if you don't have a title, you don't have a tax bill," he said.

He added that he may ask the Board of Commissioners to create a pool of money that would include providing first and last months' rent for those who would have to move. But, he said, there are no places to move, and that is another problem.

Holcomb reiterated that anything done should be done with tact and sensitivity.

"Yes, it's sad, but look at the kids that are up there and the families that are up there," she said. "That's their home."

County Commissioner Kelly Simmelink agreed.

"When we're not in a huge hurry, I just worry that something tragic's going to happen," he said. "... Obviously, coming from the other side, we have to be compassionate."

He said the board is "wide open" to whatever assistance is needed.

Former Mayor Rick Allen also attended the meeting. He said the city and county could be tough on the park owner when trailers are brought in before anyone is living in them.

"What they do is they buy cheap trailers because they want to fill the place," Allen said. They sell the trailers to people who are "in need and desperate," he continued. People make the payments, and even if they stay long enough to pay them off, the trailers are too old to be moved.

"Be real strict on the ones coming in," Allen said. "Those that are occupied, that's a longer process."

"Compassion needs to be the word of the day here," Brick said, "but it is not compassionate to allow this to continue."

The city and county both agreed to having monthly reports "so we're constantly being motivated not to give the same report," Rasmussen said.

With regard to properties in the city limits, Snead said he asked Huff and the county building official for reports of specific violations so that it could enforce its code.

"I don't know if I'm going to get it," Snead said. "... The legal standards have to be met here."

Stenbeck said he was under the impression Snead had received a report.

Nick said the report only said the properties in question weren't connected to sewer or water, and Stenbeck promised a more detailed report.

He said in an email interview that the county's code enforcement officer, Christopher Reeves, works with property owners to help them when complaints are made. Though some mobile home placement permits are the city's responsibility.


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