The eyesore next door: Neighbors, city impatient with unfinished town homes

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The neighbors didn’t always call them the trashplexes.

At first, they assumed the six town houses on West Hillsboro Drive were works in progress, just like the new homes being built and bought in Village West, a new development south of Air Park.

“When I purchased my home, it was almost in the same state (of construction) as these duplexes,” said Jessica Holtgrewe, who lives directly behind the town houses. “Then they stopped, and mine continued on. They’ve been sitting idle since.”

Carol Schmidt first saw her new town house in May, during the Parade of Homes. She didn’t worry when she saw the construction project across the street, because much of Village West is a construction project.

“I just figured it was next in line to be finished. But for nine months, we’ve been looking at an eyesore.”

An eyesore with chest-high weeds, until a neighbor called the county weed authority last summer. A row of unfinished, naked homes with no siding, the Tyvek wrap loose and frayed and flapping, sometimes ripping free and landing in neighboring yards.

Holtgrewe did have a moment of hope last fall when, after months of no activity, a crew showed up and added new wrap to one side of one unit. But then the crew was gone — and hasn’t returned.

After she and her husband bought their home in September 2018, she started a Facebook group for her neighbors. They were all new to the area, because the area was new, and this was a way to get to know each other and discuss homeowners association rules.

But another subject kept coming up.

“This has been a hot topic lately,” she said. “Everyone finds them a nuisance. We call them the trashplexes, or the eyesores.”

Their complaints eventually reached the city’s Building and Safety Department, earlier this month.

Building inspectors took the case first, said Chad Blahak, the department’s director.

The owners, a limited liability company called Village Townhomes, received building permits in the summer of 2017. The city made its last formal inspection in December 2017, checked on progress a couple of times in 2018, and again in February 2019.

But that’s the last recorded contact, Blahak said. And a builder can’t go longer than 180 days without some kind of activity.

“Some of it’s kind of subjective with building permits. In this case, it doesn’t sound like there’s any subjectivity needed. They were being built, being built, being built — and then they stopped.”

At that point, the city had the option of expiring the permits, which would require the builder to reapply and pay the fees again, on average between $400 and $600 per structure.

It doesn’t like to do that, Blahak said.

“The goal is to get them to finish the project, not just to strictly expire as soon as we can expire. If we think we can prod them along, even if it’s slow progress, that’s always more preferable.”

But this case was different. Work on the six town houses stopped nearly a year ago, he said.

“And when somebody abandons a work site, there’s not much we can do to force them to keep going.”

The city killed the permits and, because it was now no longer a building project, the case shifted to housing inspectors.

Sean Stewart visited the town houses last week, and it didn’t take long to see an obvious city code violation, blowing in the wind.

The Tyvek was weathered and flapping, which wouldn’t be happening if the duplexes were sealed in siding, which is required.

He mailed the owner a notice of violation, giving the company until mid-February to bring them into compliance.

The chief housing inspector did a little more research, finding liens stacking up against the properties (five per unit, according to the county’s register of deeds website), back taxes owed and bought by a third party, assessments from the county weed authority (typically $200 to $250 per lot, according to director Brent Meyer).

This was rare for new construction projects, Stewart said.

“Normally, the guys in the building department, they prod a person: ‘Let’s get going; let’s get this finished.’ But the other houses in the vicinity are getting finished, and the neighbors are starting to call it in.”

Stewart’s letter to the owner is the city’s first step. If the units are not brought up to code, the city can pursue criminal prosecution or place them on the costly Neglected Building Registry, which requires property owners to pay $500 per building every three months — or it could do both.

Ultimately, and at the end of the process, the city could foreclose, Blahak said. But it doesn’t want to.

“We still don’t want to get stuck with property,” he said. “The better-case scenario is it puts pressure to sell them to someone who can get it done or finish them.”

That could be coming. A representative for Village Townhomes refused to speak publicly, but said Thursday the property could change hands in a matter of weeks.

The limited liability company — which formed in June 2017 and dissolved in June 2019, according to the Secretary of State’s website — broke down when a partner pulled out midway through the project, the representative said. That led to disputes with the contractor and the bank, he said.

Holtgrewe looks forward to a better view from her bedroom window. Now, she’s confronted with unfinished shells, plywood peeking through the rips in the house wrap.

But that has her worried, too, about their integrity after so many months of exposure to the elements. She plans to warn her future potential neighbors about the history of the town houses, she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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