A Carbon County district judge on Thursday found the owner of a massive, deteriorating building in Lansford not guilty of code violations because he wasn't given sufficient time to respond before the citations were filed.
Adam Webber should have been given three days to call the borough's third-party code enforcement entity, Barry Isett & Associates, and 30 days to repair the former Panther Valley Middle School, said District Judge Casimir Kosciolek.
He said it was the lack of "due process" that steered his ruling. However, Kosciolek chastised Webber for failing to keep the building up to code.
The building, Kosciolek said, is in "horrific shape. It is a nuisance and a health hazard."
He told Webber that lack of money was no excuse for his inaction, and reminded him that citations could be filed for each day a violation exists. Kosciolek told Webber he should have called Isett as soon as he received the notification letter, regardless of how late it was.
Kosciolek cited other large, crumbling buildings in the borough, including the former Kiddie Kloes building on Patterson Street, whose owners are frequently cited for code violations.
"This is all too common in Lansford," he said.
"I'm looking to demolish the building," Webber said.
"At your own expense?" Kosciolek asked.
"Yes," Webber replied.
Webber was cited on May 20 with four violations of the building code, including broken windows, problems with roofs and drainage, abandoned, neglected buildings, and damaged interiors that are starting to deteriorate and collapse. Each violation carries a $412 fine.
After the hearing, Webber told reporters that he has had good offers for the structural steel used in the building. He said he has begun to board up windows in advance of interior demolition.
Mitch Geist, of Isett's code services department, testified that he had written the notification on Jan. 28.
What happened from there was not clear, but Webber testified that he did not receive the notification until April 26. Considering that the three days had long since passed, Webber testified, he didn't bother calling Isett.
The citations were filed with Kosciolek on May 20, five days short of the required 30 days Webber should have had upon receiving the notice.
Webber represented himself. Testifying for the borough were code officer/police officer Christopher Ondrus, Police Chief John Turcmanovich, and Geist. Council President Rosemary Cannon attended the hearing.
Geist testified that on Jan. 14, police filed complaints about unsafe conditions, including the collapse of one of the roofs. Geist inspected the exterior on Jan. 24, wrote the letter of notification on Jan. 28, and posted the building as unsafe on Feb. 14.
Ondrus testified that borough Fire Chief Ron Hood contacted him on Jan. 12 about safety hazards at the building. Hood was concerned, Ondrus said, because children from kindergarten through high school wait for the school bus there. Ondrus checked the building the next day, and then contacted Isett.
Turcmanovich testified that he was asked by Ondrus to come to the building on Jan. 24 because a door was open and there was concern that someone could be in the building, either doing something illegal or in need of help.
He said police found evidence garbage, papers, and iced tea cartons that people had been in there. He said sections of plumbing and wiring had been cut out and removed.
After Turcmanovich and Ondrus made sure there was no one lurking inside, they asked Geist to come in.
Turcmanovich also testified about the roof over a brick enclosure at the top of the exterior steps that had rusted through and was endangering the children who waited at the bus stop there.
Outside the courtroom after the hearing, Ondrus told reporters that he plans to cite Webber again.
"We're not going to give up," he said.
Also after the hearing, Webber told reporters that the tax burden he is $166,937.83 behind in property taxes on the building made it impossible to gather enough money to do repairs. He was unsuccessful in seeking a reduction.
"Taxes killed the project, as far as I'm concerned," he said.
Webber bought the 97-year-old building on East Patterson Street for $150 in 2009, intending to rally volunteers to repair it in hopes of turning it into a community center.
The building is set for tax sale in September. Webber said that if it is sold, he'd be willing to help the new owner restore it.