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City steps up demolition of unsafe structures

Charles James, Vicksburg building inspector, walks through an abandoned home at 819 Bridge Street Thursday. The home is one of an estimated 200 in the Vicksburg area that will be demolished as a result of new enforcement of building codes. (The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[07/29/01] City building inspector Charles James cautiously steps over debris and trash scattered about the home at 819 Bridge St. Its outside walls have long been taken over by kudzu.

He’s careful about where he walks, not because he is worried about stepping on something, but because just around the corner is a small room where the floor has collapsed into the basement, a room that once may have been a child’s bedroom is now an abyss into a dark basement where weeds and vines grow in through the window.

“We have a lot of them like this,” James said as he pointed out several other spots where the floor has fallen in after years of leaks from the roof causing rot and decay.

The home is one of two on top of Castle Hill the city has slated to be torn down because of safety code violations. It is one of about 25 across Vicksburg the city is in the process of having demolished and one of an estimated 200 or more in similar disrepair.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in the inspection department,” James said.

James is head of the city’s inspection department and one of five people responsible for issuing building permits and safety inspections. A big part of their job also involves inspecting structures not in compliance with city codes and having them removed.

Now, James has been given a directive from City Hall that will keep him even busier.

“We’re getting serious about cleaning up our town,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens.

Starting with Clay and Washington streets, Leyens has instructed the inspection department to begin a systematic check of every street in Vicksburg to rid the city of the blight caused by buildings and homes like a burned-out house on Sky Farm Avenue that has been left untouched for months.

“I’d like to see every board meeting have a list of properties,” Leyens said.

The process of having a structure torn down or lots cut and cleaned begins when James or the other inspectors identify the property and contact the owners.

James said that he normally deals only with unoccupied homes, but safety concerns sometimes force his office to get a court order to have a person removed from the house.

“We really try to not put people out on the streets,” James said.

Owners are usually given 30 to 120 days to correct problems, depending on the circumstances. If the owner does not do the work in the specified time, it is then up to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to take action.

“In the past, they would do it selectively based on politics,” Leyens said. “Now we’re doing it systematically.”

The city has the authority to have lots cut and cleaned or buildings torn down when needed and assess the cost to the owner. The problem then becomes getting the money back, he said.

“If they don’t have the money to repair the home in the first place and we tear it down, they’re not going to pay the city back,” James said.

The cost to tear down a single structure usually runs $2,500 to $3,000, he said. Last year, the city spent about $65,000 on demolitions, and Leyens said he would consider increasing the money available to do the work.

“The right answer is for the private sector to embrace the effort to clean up our town,” Leyens said.

He said the public works division will be looking at repairing sidewalks and gutters along the same streets the inspection department is working. He said the city will also be doing its part.

“There are no sacred cows,” Leyens said. “We need to be consistent.”

Leyens said he also plans or has already talked with the owners of the Aeolian, Battlefield Mall, Walnut Towers and other buildings about getting them fixed and occupied again. The biggest question he said he is asking is how the city can help turn the decaying structures back into landmarks of the community.

On the Aeolian, an apartment building vacant for nearly 10 years that has become an eyesore while owners have repeatedly announced plans to renovate, Leyens has specific feelings.

“It’s time for them to do it,” Leyens said. “We’ve been waiting long enough.”