Topeka Touts Legislation to Aid in Taking Control of Abandoned Property
Updated 4/11/16: The office of Governor Sam Brownback issued a press release titled Governor Sam Brownback’s veto of Senate Bill 338 defends individual liberty and property rights.
Link to article
April 5, 2016
Bill passed by Legislature expands definition of abandoned property
The City of Topeka took a backhoe to a house in the Hi-Crest neighborhood Tuesday, reducing it to splintered rubble — one action among several that cities may be able to take more quickly under legislation before Gov. Sam Brownback that eases the path for municipalities to possess abandoned property.
The house, and the property it sits on, had been named in multiple weed cases over the past year, a sanitation case and, ultimately, was ruled an unsafe structure. The city says it never found the owner. Records show the owner is dead.
Senate Bill 338 expands the definition of abandoned residential property to include houses that have been unoccupied for at least a year and have a blighting influence on surrounding property. Under current law, residential property must be delinquent on property taxes for two years and have been unoccupied for 90 days to be considered abandoned.
The legislation would effectively shorten the time before a city can take action on a property. That might mean landscaping or repairs. But it may sometimes mean demolition — like at 231 S.E. 33rd Terrace, where the city summoned reporters Tuesday to observe the teardown.
More than 700 vacant houses sit throughout the city, many concentrated in older neighborhoods near the city’s core. The city formed a unit earlier in the year to evaluate the properties and help determine if they are potentially abandoned.
Topeka has budgeted $400,000 this year in an effort to potentially demolish up to 40 houses, city spokeswoman Aly Van Dyke said.
The city says the legislation provides a way to protect neighborhoods and improve public safety while still protecting the rights of property owners. Opponents call the legislation an “egregious overreach” by government.
Under the bill, the city — with approval of the city council — could file a petition with the district court to allow a nonprofit organization temporary possession of a property. Right now, a nonprofit can only take control of a property to rehabilitate housing. The legislation allows it to assume possession for infrastructure, parks and parking facilities. The nonprofit would then be able to seek ownership after a year.
The House passed the bill 79-44. The Senate approved it 32-8. Brownback has several more days to decide whether to sign or veto the bill. The governor’s office doesn’t typically say in advance what action he will take on a bill.
The changes prompted cries of protest from lawmakers who voted no. In both chambers, the bill split Republicans and Democrats. House Speaker Ray Merrick and House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey both voted against the proposal.
“SB 338 circumvents our current eminent domain statutes by redefining ‘abandoned property’ and by allowing our local governments to expeditiously confiscate, seize or destroy law abiding citizens’ private property without compensation, adequate notice, and a legal property title,” a bipartisan group of representatives said in a statement explaining their opposition.
“This is an egregious overreach that deprives some citizens of their private property rights without sufficient due process and it will cause irreparable harm to our most vulnerable citizens that do not have the resources to protect their property.”
Not so, argues Whitney Damron, a lobbyist for the City of Topeka. The legislation allows the owner to intervene at any point during the proceedings and take steps to regain control.
Nonprofit organizations seeking to take possession of an abandoned property must be in existence for at least three years, a step Damron said addresses concerns that organizations could form for the purpose of getting into the business of taking over abandoned properties. The bill also sunsets after four years, ensuring legislative oversight, he argued.
“It really goes above and beyond to try to bring the rightful owners back into the situation, back into the court, take responsibility for the property and protect their neighbors. Because the neighbors are the ones who truly suffer when we have issues like this,” Damron said.
Damron said he believes cities will use the new law responsibly. No city is likely to implement a wholesale program to tackle potentially abandoned homes because of the costs, he said.
He indicated what is likely to happen is that neighborhood improvement associations will bring individual properties to the attention of a city council.
“This is not a situation where we have code issues with residents, tenants and landowners,” Damron said. “These are situations where the owners literally cannot be found.”
Source: The Topeka Capital-Journal
SB 338 (full text)