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Happy Valley's code provides inspiration for dangerous structures attracting fires, nuisance complaints

Oregon City commissioners are looking to Happy Valley for inspiration on how to deal with chronically abandoned buildings.

Elected officials this month discussed how several abandoned houses have led to burned-out buildings and eyesores along major corridors in Oregon City. Since 2014, the city posted signs labeling 26 buildings as "dangerous," averaging more than three times per year.

City commissioners bemoaned how many of these dangerous and abandoned buildings can remain "under construction" for over a decade, attracting vagrants and generating hundreds of complaints annually from neighbors. Most recently, a house burned on Oct. 11 at the corner of Molalla Avenue and Beverly Drive, killing its renter Hollis G. Pylant, 48.

Commissioner Denyse McGriff said that Oregon City's code needs to be "beefed up" to force "demolition by neglect" if properties have been sitting around abandoned for more than five years, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

"We need to be more assertive and more aggressive and either fix it, or it's gone," McGriff said. "Maybe someone will come around and do something better with the parcel than leave it with a junky building."

Happy Valley requires owners of abandoned residential property and vacant foreclosed residential property to register with the city and pay a $100 fee, which is meant to encourage property owners to keep property uses active. This registration fee increases by $100 each year for four years and sustains the fourth-year $400 fee for each year thereafter.

Ryan Kersey recently took over as manager of Oregon City Code Enforcement after he had for several years in Happy Valley supervised code enforcement, animal control and crime prevention. In the near future, Kersey is expected to speak before Oregon City commissioners with lessons learned from his time in Happy Valley. Oregon City's longtime Code Enforcement manager, Nancy Busch, recently retired.

Oregon City Economic Development Director James Graham said commercial properties should be included in the new fines for chronic vacancy.

"I would encourage the commission to consider a broader scope than simply a building that has structural defects, but also buildings that are just non-performing from an economic development point of view," Graham said. "Before you get to the point of having the broken-window syndrome and all that, maybe there's a way to step in to encourage the business owner through penalties or whatever to sell the building, maybe even to urban renewal, maybe to the city."

Commissioners discussed citizen complaints of departmental "silos" that allegedly fail to coordinate efforts of city employees. To deal with abandoned buildings, various Oregon City departments — including Public Works, Building, Engineering, Code Enforcement and OCPD — often coordinate efforts, city officials responded, adding that the Planning Department's permit system includes a mechanism to connect to each department to make sure that they're not individually sending letters to the same property for the same issues.

"I know from first-hand experience that our code has these nuisance factors," Commissioner Frank O'Donnell said.

Commissioner Rocky Smith, who had long advocated that the city restores the Ermatinger House to its current use as a public museum, said the city should walk its talk on properties it owns.

"This is super hypocritical, and unless the city takes care of its own buildings, I don't think we should be talking about other people's buildings," Smith said. "I know several buildings in Oregon City that haven't been dealt with in decades, for instance the Ermatinger House, which was 20 years in the making of the city neglecting it, and another house that we own on Jackson Street."

Mayor Rachel Lyles Smith agreed that there are still city-owned properties left in neglect and said any new codes on abandoned buildings should be "really conscious" to respect people's private property rights.

This online story corrects the name of the person who died in the fire. Patrick Shea, 73, died in a Oregon City train crash on Oct. 15. We apologize for the error.

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