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Couple Unable to Stop Forced Demolition of Cumberland Property

Written By: Travis Buhler  |  Posted: Friday, November 2nd, 2012

                Three years ago, Tomas and Nina Zebrowski purchase a home in Cumberland, a small city in northwestern Wisconsin.  Their intentions were to improve the property with the hopes of eventually moving from Florida to settle in the scenic area.

                According to the Zebrowskis, little did they know that a neighbor had also been eyeing the house, not to live in, but as a means to make his property value higher.  "They [the City] thought they found an easy target that they could just play nice to, shut down, have it go to the previous owner, and tear the building down and the city could pay for the razing and the neighbor could pay for the lot for a thousand dollars."

                Both the Zebrowski's and the neighbor's properties were considered "non-conforming" lots.  This typically means that the city has determined that the lot is too small for the house that is on it.  The result of this is that certain improvements cannot be done to the house unless a zoning committee approves of the change.

                Another possible way around this dictate would be to increase the size of your lot by purchasing an adjoining lot and tearing one of the houses down.  This would assumedly require that the owner of the adjoining property was willing to sell the house.

                In 2009, the Zebrowskis purchased their house, which is located near downtown Cumberland.  Almost immediately, complaints were issued by the above neighbor about structural problems and the lack of evidence that the house was being used as a dwelling.  The January 2009 complaint listed several items including structural, roofing, and foundational problems along with trash in the yard and unmowed grass.  The conclusion of the neighbor was that the building should be torn down.

                The Zebrowskis told The US Journal, "The house was not the worst looking house in the neighborhood.  When neighbors heard about that they wanted to tear the house down they said things like, 'that house? It wasn't bad.'"  Many neighbors told them that it was nice to see someone repairing the house.

                Unfortunately for the Zebrowskis, the city's codes and the staff's actions made the desired demolition of their house easy to fulfill.  Many local codes are written in such a way as to reduce the amount of what the city considers "blight".  While blight traditionally meant a structure that was so run down that it was an actual physical danger to people, today it can mean anything that needs a lot of work or looks old compared to the surrounding buildings.  With such a change of definition, it is easy to structure city codes to favor the elimination of a building that, though it may look ugly and in need of repair, would make a great place to work or live in for those unable to afford a more expensive, "modern" looking property.

                The City of Cumberland's codes are just one example of this policy.  The Zebrowskis made efforts to prevent the eventual razing of their house.  They showed evidence refuting many of the complaints and made arrangements to repair those which existed.  After a number of city inspections and continual complaints by their neighbor, the case eventually went before Barron County Judge James Babler in November 2011.

                At the time, Wisconsin laws stated that if a house is non-conforming and in need of structural repairs in order for it to be inhabitable, the cost of repairs must be less than twice the value of the property.  The building inspector, James Price, testified that the costs exceeded this limit and that the building should be razed.  The Zebrowskis considered this estimate purposely bloated for the purpose of razing the house.  Many of the repairs on Price's list included items not pertaining to the structure of the house.

                The Zebrowskis also questioned the cost of repairing the foundation, which Price estimated to cost $20,000.  "only some of the rocks had grumbled and we had an estimate to get it repaired for $700."

                The Zebrowskis hired their own carpenter, Jeff Nelson of Eau Claire, who told the court he could make the house livable for much cheaper.  Nelson, an experienced carpenter and home builder, told The US Journal, "It was in halfway decent condition and could have been brought back without too much money, which is why we went to court."

                In fact, the Zebrowskis claim that there never should have been a court case.  According to Nina, "we should have never been in that court room in November 2011. Our house was never red tagged. No placard or anything else in that matter was put on the house to show everyone that the house supposedly was unsafe."

                There were even questions as to whether Price could legitimately order the razing.  Shortly after the initial complaints and inspections, Price was fired as a residential inspector, but then rehired as a commercial inspector.  Yet Price continued to oversee the Zebrowski's case.  Says Tomas, "After asking the city officials multiple times for the new residential building inspector, the city never allowed him (Mr. Helstab) to be our building inspector.  How can a commercial building inspector (Price) go and raze someone's home?"

                According to the Zebrowskis, Judge Babler considered Nelson's estimate, which was about one/fifth the costs of the city inspector's, so low that he questioned the credentials of Nelson.  Relying on the reputation and credentials of Price instead of the good-faith efforts of the Zebrowskis, Babler ruled with the City and ordered the building to be demolished.  By mid-2012, the Zebrowskis relented and tore down the building.  They have no plans of selling the property and are currently looking for a lawyer for help with any future actions.  In the meantime, the Zebrowskis are "stuck with a piece of land that I can only really sell to one of my two neighbors."

                Cases like this are not rare.  Others in Cumberland have experienced similar actions.  But many localities throughout the country have codes and regulations that allow one or more neighbor to cause havoc for a property owner. 

                Fortunately, the State Legislature proposed and passed a bill ending the law that required the costs of repair be less than twice the value of the house.  Nevertheless, activities like this continue against property owners whose houses may be considered unsightly - but not a danger - to their neighbors.  The Zebrowski's case is just one example among many.

                Travis Buhler is the Editor of the US Journal and the Eau Claire Journal.  Email: travis@eauclairejournal.com.

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