Pictured at the June 10 Hillsboro City Council meeting are (l-r): council members Mary Stanforth, Claudia Klein, Ann Morris and Tom Eichinger. (HCP photo by Caitlin Forsha.)
Pictured at the June 10 Hillsboro City Council meeting are (l-r): council members Mary Stanforth, Claudia Klein, Ann Morris and Tom Eichinger. (HCP photo by Caitlin Forsha.)

As has been the case for the past several months, concerns and complaints regarding “condemned” or “uninhabitable” buildings in the uptown area continued at Hillsboro city council’s June 10 meeting. Following the collapse of a portion of a building on West Main Street June 3 and heated remarks from the safety and service director and mayor at the May 13 city council meeting, citizens, property owners and city officials continued their discussion Monday, June 10.

As previously reported by The Highland County Press, part of a former storefront in uptown Hillsboro, located at 119 West Main Street, collapsed Monday, June 3. The West Main Street location had formerly housed a jewelry store and was recently part of an auction by Classic Real Estate/Rick Williams Auction Company. Neighboring buildings were evacuated, as some businesses continue to be vacated over a week later.

During the safety and service director’s report – which was read by council president Tom Eichinger, in Mel McKenzie’s absence – McKenzie spoke about the “cleanup of 119 West Main.” On the evening the building fell (Monday, June 3), according to McKenzie, “the demo contractor came in to preliminarily assess the situation, and calls were made to the state for review.”

On Tuesday, June 4, McKenzie said, “the demo contractor installed fencing, and a structural engineer was on site to inspect the damages. The state was in the process of scheduling an inspection.” Representatives from the Ohio Department of Health and Environmental Protection Agency inspected the site Wednesday, June 5. On Thursday, June 6, “a state representative for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) came in to ask what had been done and a plan for abatement,” as well as “another structural engineer … to design and assess stability plans.”

McKenzie said that “properties on West Main Street owned by Jack Hope have very similar issues” as the collapsed building.

“Due to this, the eastbound lane will remain closed to protect from potential failure,” McKenzie wrote. “All those buildings were posted as uninhabitable, not condemned, as is often reported incorrectly.”

According to McKenzie’s definitions in his report, an “uninhabitable” designation means that “the owner has the chance to work with the city within a reasonable time,” while a “condemned” designation “means there’s no access allowed in the structure and it is past the point of no return.”

As previously reported, the city has placed notices on a number of former businesses that read: "This building is unfit for human habitation. The use or occupancy of this building for human habitation is prohibited and unlawful." According to the city’s housing code, “Any premises condemned as unfit for human habitation, and so designated and placarded by the inspector, shall be vacated within a reasonable time as ordered by the inspector. No premises which have been condemned and placarded as unfit for human habitation shall again be used for human habitation until written approval is secured from and the placard is removed by the inspector, after correction of the deficiencies and the premises are brought into compliance with the provisions of this chapter, as applicable.”

Highland County Auditor Bill Fawley has also used the term “condemned” in reference to Hillsboro’s buildings marked by city officials.

An “uninhabitable” designation is not defined in the city’s code of ordinances.

McKenzie concluded his report by saying his “patience is wearing thin” and he “will be taking action soon” on the collapsed property.

During the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting, David Osborne, Sr., of Peebles, read a statement on behalf of Southern Ohio Historic Preservation Investment Group, LLC, who recently purchased a group of buildings on West Main Street formerly owned by Jack Hope which have been “deemed uninhabitable” by the city.

“Several people were interested in purchasing the Hope building, including Mr. Hastings, but we had the winning bid,” Osborne told council.

In his statement, Osborne addressed – and refuted – some of the comments made by McKenzie during the May 13 council meeting. The Highland County Press reported April 30 that the Osbornes’ group felt there was “resistance” from the city during their meeting with administration April 29. During the May city council meeting, McKenzie disagreed, saying the meeting “went well” in his view.

“Just to clear up a misunderstanding: we met with Mayor [Drew] Hastings, Mr. Weissman and Mr. McKenzie on [April] 29,” Osborne said. “We were disappointed because we had expected a different response.”

According to Osborne, Hastings advised him to “withdraw from the contract” to purchase the buildings.

“This was confusing to me because I thought Mr. Hastings wanted Hillsboro to expand,” Osborne said. “Our project on the Hope buildings will bring jobs and help stimulate the economy of Hillsboro. The city’s action to date against this project has cost 14 jobs in Hillsboro. Do you want Hillsboro to expand and grow or just be a vacant lot?”

Osborne also distributed to council members a copy of a report from an independent contractor, whom Osborne said inspected the buildings May 7.

“The report provided is in contradiction to Mr. Weissman’s opinion of the building’s conditions,” Osborne said. “Unlike Mr. Weissman’s report, this report details everything that needs to be done to the buildings. None of these things are major. It does not say anywhere in this report that those buildings need to be demolished.”

Osborne also pointed out that “the report does not say that the building that houses Momma’s [West Main Cafe] is uninhabitable.”

Momma’s West Main Cafe has been forced to close following the 119 West Main Street building’s collapse, with the restaurant posting on Facebook June 6, “It is with extreme sadness that we share with you today that we will be closed until further notice. We are being told we have to leave during the remodeling phase.” Hastings and the owners of Momma's West Main Cafe had a verbal confrontation along Main Street on June 3 that was recorded and shared with The Highland County Press on June 4.

After Osborne handed copies of the report, Eichinger told him that “this is not something that council directly can deal with” but that council would contact him if “they need to.”

Karen Cundiff, who owns Cundiff’s Flowers – located just west of the collapsed building – asked about the cleanup efforts, which she said “have not started,” and “whether she might be able to get back in” her store or should look to relocate.

“My understanding is that the property owner to the east of the collapsed building there – just to the east – has to sign off on a more or less ‘hold harmless’ agreement with the city when they do start tearing it down,” Hastings said. “That building owner has taken it to their legal counsel, and they’re debating on whether or not they should sign it. It’s in their hands right now.”

Cundiff asked for a time frame. “I’m hoping it will be days,” Hastings said. The mayor added that he would ask McKenzie to “talk with our law director and see what can be done.”

“I don’t know if properties can singularly be dealt with or if it’s kind of an all or none situation,” Hastings said.

In his report, McKenzie also wrote about giving a letter to “the property owner immediately next door [to the collapsed building], to the east, indemnifying the city and any subcontractors for work on the collapse that may cause further damage to their building.”

“Until this is done, our agreement is no work will be done to the structure,” McKenzie wrote. “It will remain closed off for the safety of the public. The city cannot take on liability caused by the negligence of another.”

McKenzie said that they cannot proceed with a “plan for abatement … because of the liability reasons” or “possibly the owner of 119 West Main Street will face legal charges.”

The property is owned by Helen Walton, according to the Highland County auditor’s website, and is currently home to Bon Appetit Gourmet Shoppe and Gifts. In addition to Momma’s West Main Cafe and Cundiff’s Flowers, Bon Appetit has been closed until further notice due to the adjacent building’s collapse.

Walton told The Highland County Press that as of Thursday, June 13, “I have not heard from any city official, either by phone, e-mail or letter.”

“I have heard from different sources that it is my fault the cleanup can't start until I sign a waiver that I will not holding the city or contractor accountable if they damage my building while clearing up the debris,” Walton said. “Our building and Slow & Low BBQ have now been condemned, or as the city building inspector says, ‘it's not condemned, it is just uninhabitable.’”

Walton said that on June 4, McKenzie sent an email to Mahan (her son) with a PDF attachment saying, “Please review this document Fred has drawn up to protect the city and the contractor. This does not mean the Fettros are not liable. They are because it was their building. Would you be willing to sign?”

However, she has still not been contacted directly by the city, she said.

In other blighted property discussions, Hillsboro resident Dale Campbell inquired about the status of the Gross-Feibel building during the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting. In 2017, city officials had discussed plans to demolish the building and/or to create a joint park system with the Gross-Feibel property, on Elm Street, with the city park on Railroad Street.

Campbell asked whether the city still owned the property and what their “intention” is.

Hastings responded that the city had transferred the property ownership to the city’s CIC.

“We had hoped to have money this year to begin demolition,” Hastings said. “We did not have the funds this year, and that got put on hold.”

Hastings also told Campbell that public works administrator Shawn Adkins has recommended putting up a fence around the property until it can be demolished.

For related articles, go to: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/Opinions/Rory-Ryan/Article/UPDATED-Hillsboro-s-condemned-properties-appraised-values-addressed/4/83/50884 and https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/Default/Rotator-Articles-/Article/Hillsboro-council-considers-storm-sewer-improvements-South-Central-Power-to-leave-city/-3/546/50909