Demolitions ‘on hold’ after ruling

City has torn down 27 dilapidated structures, 19 ‘in legal pipeline,’ 40 on list
Reporter Editor

Structures like this on East Cameron (US 79) have gotten a reprieve, for now. 
Reporter/Mike Brown Structures like this on East Cameron (US 79) have gotten a reprieve, for now. Reporter/Mike Brown Rockdale’s program of tearing down structures termed “unsafe or dilapidated” is on hold, along with those in most of the rest of the state, after an unprecedented ruling by the Texas Supreme Court.

In Dallas vs. Stewart, the court ruled 5-4 that a woman whose house was torn down almost 10 years ago in Dallas is entitled to $75,000 in compensation.

That ruling has gotten the attention of Rockdale and every other municipality in the state with similar procedures in place.

“We’re suspending the (demolition) program until we figure out what to do,” City Manager Kelvin Knauf told The Reporter. “It looks like lots of municipalities are handling this lots of different ways.”

Knauf said since Rockdale’s current procedures have been in place the city has torn down 27 structures and 19 more are currently at various stages of the legal process.

“And there’s a list of probably 35 to 40 more we were looking at,” Lon Williams, code enforcement officer, said. “But of course, all that’s on hold until we figure out what to do.”

City Attorney Michelle Lehmkuhl told The Reporter she was reviewing the situation and at some point would give her opinion to the city on how best to proceed.

‘NUISANCE’—The court’s ruling in Dallas vs. Stewart has implications well beyond razing structures.

Dallas’s Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board (URSB) had ruled the house in question constituted a “nuisance.” Rockdale has been mulling enacting a nuisance ordinance for most of a year and was to have continued that discussion in a Thursday workshop.

The workshop was cancelled due to lack of a quorum, Knauf said.

Last spring the council extensively discussed enacting a first-ever nuisance ordinance but hasn’t yet come to terms with a legal definition for “nuisance.”

Mayor Larry Jones asked the council to compile a list of activities/situations that could be termed “slam dunks,” which he defined as “viewed as nuisances to a majority of Rockdale residents.”

Knauf said at Thursday’s workshop the council would have looked over a basic nuisance ordinance template and sug- gested ways to localize it.

HIGH STAKES—The Texas Supreme Court decision came down on the side of property rights, as opposed to the regulatory authority of municipalities.

Dallas resident Heather Stewart bought a house there in 1991 but the city accused her of abandoning it after utilities were disconnected and windows boarded up.

As required by law, the city ser ved notices of impending demolition, but accused Stewart of ignoring them.

Hearings followed before city boards, the URSB issued its ruling of “nuisance” and the city demolished the house on Nov. 1, 2002.

Stewart sued the city and a jury found in her favor and awarded her $75,706.67.

The city had fought that verdict for a decade. Realizing the high stakes, the Texas Attorney General and about a dozen cities filed ‘friends of the court” briefs and presented unsolicited support for the City of Dallas before the Supreme Court.

‘PROPERTY RIGHTS’—But the court ruled for Stewart and said she could keep the money.

Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, speaking for the majority, wrote:

“ The protection of property rights, central to the functioning of our society, should not—indeed cannot—be charged to the same people who seek to take those rights away...We believe that unelected municipal agencies cannot be effective bulwarks against constitutional violations...”

Justice Eva Guzman, writing for the minority, said the ruling will impede the ability of municipalities to provide a safe environment.

“...Cities are faced with complex challenges, posed by a crisis level of abandoned and dangerous buildings, and one of the most important weapons provided by the legislature to combat this problem is summary nuisance abatement.”

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