Over the past decade, the city of Springfield began dealing aggressively with blight and unfit structures. Their strategy for addressing these issues, which have increased property values and contributed to the progress throughout the city, involves what are known as slum clearances.
Also referred as slum evictions or removals, slum clearances are an urban renewal strategy used to transform settlements with poor reputation or significant damages into another type of development or housing. They were adopted as a state law in 2004, which allows public officials to decide if a building can be repaired or not at a reasonable cost. According to the law, a reasonable cost refers to 50% or less of the cost of the whole premises.
For the first time in six years, the Springfield Board of Mayor and Alderman held an appeals hearing on Nov. 16 concerning a dispute over a slum clearing that was issued for a structure on Batts Boulevard. This came after an Oct. 5 construction board hearing where all nine members voted to have the building removed.
The building in question, owned by Marilyn Smith, was used as The Well of Restoration Church and halfway house. However, it had not been occupied or used since 2016. According to Smith, she lost tax-exempt status for the nonprofit business and became unable to afford to pay taxes to operate the halfway house.
After hearing arguments from Springfield Codes Administrator Mark Fields, Smith, and her attorney, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously to uphold the construction board’s decision.
The issue first arose in January of this year after the building was discovered and inspected by Fields, who found that the roof and ceiling had collapsed. He then issued a slum clearance to Smith, and a hearing was held the same month where Smith asked Fields to postpone his decision. She brought with her an engineering report and a contractor with a cost estimate.
According to Fields, the report said it was not advisable to repair the building, and the contractor couldn’t repair it for the initial cost. Smith had originally agreed to completely tear down the building and rebuild it, but current zoning regulations prevented that as a solution. Smith then made the decision to get a revised estimate and engineering report, and Fields would receive clarification on the zoning issue.
“On Batts Boulevard. there’s two structures. There’s an old house that’s boarded up and vacant. That’s on the same property as hers, but we’re not doing a slum clearance on that. There’s a little building that was used as a church and it’s a little block building. The roof had collapsed. The zoning ordinance says it has to be constructed with the bulk regulations. If the building is damaged more than 50 percent, it has to be removed and built back according to the zoning regulations. My cost estimates were way over 50 percent. We were not trying to split hairs. If it was reasonable, we would allow her to fix the building, but the construction board said it was way gone,” Fields stated.
After Fields received a revised report, he scheduled a second meeting with Smith to go over their findings. However, Fields stated that for the next five months Smith continually asked for meetings to be rescheduled. After agreeing on a date for July 28, Smith tried to cancel again. Fields had the meeting without her and made a decision with the information he had at that time. He also had City Engineer David Brewer issue a letter to Smith confirming that the building would not be allowed to be rebuilt.
“Ms. Marilyn did what I asked her to do and did a nice job getting some information on what’s wrong with the building and giving me a cost estimate, and then we could negotiate and see what that was,” Fields said. “She hired a nice guy, but his revised engineer report said it would still be necessary to replace the footings, the piers, the floor, the exterior walls, and the roof, which is a whole new building. He said it was not advisable or reasonable to repair the building. I made the determination because she had already given me the revised engineer report. So, with that and the rest of my cost estimates and everything I had enough information to help me make my decision.”
A construction board meeting was held on Oct. 5, but Smith did not attend the appeal. Despite her attempts to reschedule, the board went ahead with the meeting and unanimously upheld Field’s decision to remove the structure.
Based on cost estimates, the slum clearance repair value could not exceed $51,050. The revised reports stated that along with the roof, interior walls, and ceiling being damaged and deteriorated, there were severe damages to the electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems. In total, the estimated repair cost came to $120,761.
Representing Smith at the appeals hearing was Nick Schulenberg, an attorney at Freeman & Fuson law firm based out of Nashville. He stated to the board that Smith hasn’t had a full opportunity to be heard due to several things going on in her personal life, but in no way does it diminish her desire to be heard and speak on the property.
Schulenberg also stressed that his and Smith’s main disputes involves the notion that the building is damaged more than 50%, as well as the final repair costs that Fields and the construction board based their decision on.
Despite appeals from her attorney, the board of Mayor and Aldermen ultimately upheld the construction board’s decision. City Attorney Christina Bartee noted that going against the decision of other boards would set a precedent for the system of appeals and the process the city has in place.
“I sympathize with all of the stuff you’ve gone through,” Alderman James Hubbard said, referring to Smith. “I also appreciate your zeal and having compassion for needy people. But we have to uphold the procedures that are in place and the board’s decision.”