Court of Appeals 04.13.10

The Court reverses the Saint Paul city council on a building-demolition order, finding that the Council “entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the issue.”  The leading source of frustration in dealing with nuisance properties is the absurd length of time it takes to get through the process.  This opinion re-emphasizes why delays and postponements are, like it or not, the right choice.  This property either sat vacant or was used as an unauthorized duplex for at least seven years.  The City had posted summary abatement notices on the property four times since 2007.  Following another inspection in October, 2008, the City began the nuisance-building removal process.  The owner got notice and was supposed to abate by Devember 15.  It’s not clear whether the owner started work right away, but it wasn’t done by Dec. 15.  A hearing was set for February.  The owner had done some work but not all.  The hearing was continued for 2 weeks, and the owner pulled some additional permits but apparently wasn’t done.  There was also some dispute about the exterior of the building.   The matter was heard before the Council two weeks later.  The owner appeared with a packet of materials (it’s not clear what was in the packet, since somehow it never made it into the record) and disputed parts of the staff report.  However, it’s evident that the work was, at best, in progress. Following 13 minutes of discussion, the councilmember for the ward including the property expressed his frustrations with the history of the property going back to 2004, and led a unanimous vote for demolition.

To the Court, however, the history doesn’t matter.  The sole concern is the current existence of a nuisance – apparently determined at the minute of decision, without reference to past history, work deadlines, or even completion at the time of the decision.  The Court scolds the city council for ordering demolition on “stale” staff reports based on the October 2008 inspection and later drive-bys of the property.    In doing so, I think they go too far in making it appear that showing up on the day of decision with a packet of photos is all it takes to prevent nuisance abatement; let’s hope that’s not the rule.  The crucial aspects seem to be: a) not updating the “nuisance” opinion to address the work the City had issued permits for; b) the relatively short Council consideration of the item; and c) that the “money quote” from a councilmember (likely the only thing said by any member, knowing St. Paul meetings) focused solely on past frustration with the property, and not its current status. 

The takeaway: stay focused on why a property remains a nuisance on the day of the Council’s decision.  Missed deadlines and past conditions won’t support the decision by themselves.

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