They’re all over town, with some sticking out like sore thumbs and others so far gone they’ve nearly been reclaimed by nature. But the abandoned and derelict houses dotting the blocks in Summit are a big concern for town officials.
Addressing the issue isn’t so much a losing battle as a slow slog, where victories come in the form of long-awaited demolitions and the clearing of overgrown grass and weeds.
“I get aggravated with this job every once in a while,” said Wayne Parker, the town’s zoning administrator whose job is to identify the properties, reach out to the owners and get the town council to take action.
Parker recently took a reporter around town to show off the worst of the worst, driving by about a dozen such houses.
Two are high on his list of priorities: 802 Palmetto St. and 508 John D. Shaw St.
“Those two need to be demolished bad,” Parker said. “The rest of them, nobody has complained.”
n n n
At the John D. Shaw Street address, Parker walks to the back of the house and points to the crawl space, where he said an old well is insufficiently covered.
“This is where the fire department got the puppies out,” he said, recalling an incident a few years ago when a litter fell into the well and firefighters pulled them out using a treble hook.
Parker said neighbors have been grumbling about the condition of the house.
“We’re constantly hearing complaints,” he said.
Building codes prescribe demolition as the only remedy for a house that’s lost more than 60% of its structural integrity, as is the case with this one, Parker said.
“You haven’t got a choice,” he said. “It’s more than 60% to recover it.”
Damage from a fire on the south side of the dwelling leaves much of it exposed to the elements.
Parker said the town council gave owner Anthony Brown 30 days to do something about the house in November. Parker didn’t have a phone number for Brown and has only been able to reach out to him by certified letter. In most cases, all he has to go by for contact information is a mailing address for an heir.
“I try to be persistent with every one of them. I try to send a letter every 90 days,” Parker said.
Besides public health and safety hazards, Parker said the derelict properties pose economic consequences for the town and its residents in the form of lost property taxes, lower property values and higher water and garbage bills.
“Every one of those houses, you’re paying a garbage bill — the town is,” Parker said.
Waste Management bills Summit for garbage pickup based on the number of houses in town whether anyone’s living in them or not.
“The town is paying a garbage bill. The people who own it aren’t paying anything,” he said.
He’s managed to have other run-down houses in the neighborhood demolished, which he considers a small victory in a much larger battle.
“There were a lot of them down here that were in terrible shape,” Parker said.
n n n
As Parker left John D. Shaw Street, he rode by other problem houses as well as vacant lots where run-down structures used to stand.
He pointed to an empty lot where a fallen-in house used to be and said, “I got rid of it.”
A house that sits empty too long will decay in no time, and Parker noted that some houses become vacant after someone dies and has no family left in the area, which is common with a lot of houses in Summit.
He passed a burned-out house on the corner of Oak and Pine streets.
“This is one I’ll have to handle shortly,” he said.
Next door to it is another house so overtaken by weeds that it can barely be seen from the street. Across from the post office on Robb Street a small house also has been camouflaged by overgrown vegetation.
Parker turned onto Thomas Street and passed by a ramshackle house with a large mimosa tree sprouting from the foundation.
On Meadville Street he passed by a lot where two fire-damaged houses owned by a church were recently demolished after the town council fervently pressed church leaders to take action.
But not all of the houses in the area are in bad shape.
About a block away, he pointed to one of the oldest houses in town, where legend has it that Frank James, brother of notorious outlaw Jesse James, once stayed. The owner lives out of town but does a good job of keeping it up, Parker said.
“This is one of the oldest houses in town and look at it,” Parker said.
On Palmetto Street, Parker pulled up to a house that’s high on his list of priorities. Weeds have overtaken the front yard and fire damage has left a gaping hole on an exterior wall, exposing a bathroom.
Parker said most of the family lives out of town and he’s tried unsuccessfully to contact a relative who lives nearby.
Parker said the town has been hearing complaints about the property, which his records show is owned by Thomas McClain Jr., since 2008.
The unkempt yard is as much of a problem as the house itself, providing a habitat for snakes and vermin, and fuel for a brushfire that could threaten other properties if ignited.
And that’s just one of the many other problems that houses like this pose to neighbors.
“If one of these catches fire, the whole block’s going to disappear,” Parker said.