ST. JOSEPH — Thursday is the deadline for the owner of a St. Joseph house to demolish the building that has repeatedly been declared uninhabitable and a safety hazard.
If nothing is done by that time, the city of St. Joseph will take action to have the house at 1051 Niles Ave. torn down, according to city attorney Laurie Schmidt.
Will the walls finally come tumbling down in this long-running dispute?
Schmidt said the city has heard nothing from the owner, Dennis Knuth, and there has been no application for a demolition permit. It would take a court order to put a stay on the demolition order at this point, she explained.
Knuth has a history of waiting until the last minute to take legal actions to hold off the demolition of the house, which sits near the intersection at Main Street with a large tarp over its roof. His attorney, Allan Falk, could not be reached for comment.
The most recent clock started ticking when the Michigan Supreme Court on Sept. 30 refused to hear the appeal from the plaintiffs, listed as Bailey and Biddle LLC. The original demolition order was issued in February 2017, and has been upheld by the city’s Property Maintenance Board of Appeals, the Berrien County Circuit Court and the Michigan Court of Appeals.
The plaintiffs have argued that the order violates the owner’s right to due process because the owner wasn’t given enough time to make the ordered repairs to the structure that is badly deteriorated, with extensive water damage and mold inside, along with the missing roof.
The Court of Appeals countered that “there is no fundamental constitutional right to repair a structure that is unfit for human occupancy, and any private right to repair must yield to the city’s higher interest in protecting the safety of its citizens.”
After the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the owner had 45 days to tear down the building, which expires Thursday.
Schmidt said that if the demolition order isn’t further contested, the city plans to request entry into the house to determine if it contains asbestos, which she said requires a different procedure for demolition.
If Knuth denies entry, the city will request a court order, Schmidt said.
City inspectors began to notice exterior defects at the property starting in 2013, including the damaged roof.
The owner was given more than a year to fix the problems, but no work was done.
The issue resurfaced in 2015, and the owner took out a permit to fix the roof, but again no work was done, despite repeated reminders.
In 2017 the city inspector obtained a search warrant to enter the house. Inside he found extensive water damage, mold, debris, crumbling walls and holes in the floor.
The city inspector claimed that it would cost $122,000 to repair the house that had a market value of around $50,000, after repairs.
The owner said that repairs would cost half that amount. An engineer hired by Knuth said the building was structurally sound.
The Court of Appeals found holes in the owner’s arguments.
“Although appellant claimed that it could perform the repairs itself, the record showed that appellant had contributed to the structure’s dilapidation by failing to undertake necessary repairs despite years of notices from the city,” the court ruled. “Thus, there was sufficient evidence from which reasonable minds could determine that it was unreasonable to repair the property.”
Knuth has had code violations at other properties in St. Joseph, and unsuccessfully sued Hagar Township over the demolition of one of his properties.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak