Cape Gazette

County rarely takes action on abandoned buildings

County officials can't recall ever condemning a structure
By Ron MacArthur | May 07, 2014
Photo by: Ron MacArthur This abandoned farmhouse along Wilson Road near Georgetown is typical of many dilapidated buildings in Sussex County.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, at least when it comes to old, abandoned houses and buildings dotting the Sussex County landscape.

“I can see both sides,” says Sussex County Councilwoman Joan Deaver, R-Rehoboth Beach. She said she's been getting complaints from some of her constituents.

“I grew up on the Eastern Shore, and old farmhouses don't bother me, but I do understand how old buildings could affect property value,” she said.

It's not hard to find abandoned houses. What is hard is what do about them. Even though Chapter 71 of the county code specifically outlines regulations pertaining to condemnation of abandoned structures, not all county staff is aware the provisions exist.

No one can recall the county ever condemning a property. Lawrence Lank, director of planning and zoning, can't remember a single condemnation in his more than 40-year career working for the county.

Under the regulations, the county can condemn an abandoned structure that is unfit for human occupancy or is unsafe. If the building is beyond repair, the county can move in and demolish the structure and place a lien on the property.

Several cities in Sussex County have been tackling the problem; most follow the same policy, trying to work with the property owner to make repairs or face demolition. If demolition occurs, a lien is usually placed on the property.

Chris Keeler, acting director of assessment, said abandoned properties receive tax bills. “Taxes are still owed unless a structure is demolished,” he said. “But taxes can be reduced to no value.”

Keeler said the county has ordered property owners to board up a few buildings for safety reasons. “Beyond that, we haven't done much,” he said. “We've never targeted abandoned structures. We would have to take direction from administration or county council.”

Council has rarely discussed the issue, but at the April 29 meeting Deaver requested the matter be placed on an agenda. “It's on my list. It can't end up being too expensive or time consuming,” she said. “But we are selling atmosphere in the county. People do call me, and they can't understand why we don't take care of it.”

“I want to see a beautiful Sussex like everyone else, but we must respect property rights. It's a fine line, sometimes,” said Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel. “Sussex County, and my district in particular, is home to wonderful, yet diverse communities. What may be an unacceptable structure in Fenwick or South Bethany may not solicit the scorn in western Sussex communities.”

In addition, Phillips said, the county has to respect homeowners associations' covenants. “I believe we should offer assistance if requested, but certain deed restrictions may trump our authority,” he said.

County Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, said constituents have brought up the issue to him. “This is a big subject that will take some thought and research to see what if anything should be done,” he said.

This large,deteriorating structure along Beaver Dam Road near Lewes has been abandoned for several years. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
This is one of two abandoned houses adjacent to one another along Jimtown Road near Lewes. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
Some abandoned farm structures – such as this old silo along Beaver Dam Road – serve as a reminder of a bygone era. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
This property along Route 9 in Belltown has been abandoned so long that trees and bushes are overtaking it. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
Work to repair this house at the corner of Route 9 and Harbeson Road was discontinued years ago. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
This old house at the corner of Route 9 and Shingle Point Road near Georgetown is slowly collapsing. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
The owners of this property along Wilson Road have posted a no trespassing sign. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
One can only wonder how long it will take before this burned-out house along Shingle Point Road near Milton will be cleaned up. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
The caved in roof on this house along Hudson Road near Lewes will only lead to more damage. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
Several old buildings, abandoned vehicles and rusted equipment remain at this site at the intersection of Kendale and Beaver Dam roads near Lewes. (Photo by: Ron MacArthur)
Comments (2)
Posted by: Linda Dennis | May 08, 2014 13:44

What amazes me is that anyone who has lived in Sussex for more than a nano second could be surprised by the number of these structures. There are hundreds of them. This issue must be addressed as most, if not all, are hazards and a threat to public health and safety. This issue needs the undivided attention of the public officials if a solution which will lead to eradication of this form of environmental neglect is to be found. Property rights of an individual notwithstanding, the thousands of residents of this county deserve better in the form of action.

Posted by: Jens Wegscheider BRW HOA | May 08, 2014 20:10

What a great article. We had also taken photos of the greenish wreck of a home on corner of Rt 9 and Harbeson Rd - noted that they started to put in Anderson Windows before the house would be condemned.

Many well-kept communities like our Bay Ridge Woods have to put up with a nearby abandoned home because our legislators seem to do nothing about this major problem - hopefully now - thanks to Ron - they will listen and start the cleanup process.

Jens W. -Angola area

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