County rarely takes action on abandoned buildings

County officials can't recall ever condemning a structure
This abandoned farmhouse along Wilson Road near Georgetown is typical of many dilapidated buildings in Sussex County. BY RON MACARTHUR
May 7, 2014

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.