State Supreme Court won't hear demolition appeal

The Michigan Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a St. Joseph demolition order of this house at 1051 Niles Ave., which has extensive interior damage and a tarp over its roof since 2016. The owner has 45 days to tear it down, barring further legal action, before the city takes over.

ST. JOSEPH — The Michigan Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of an order to demolish a badly dilapidated house on Niles Avenue, near the Main Street intersection, in St. Joseph.

But that might not be the final word, according to the city’s attorney.

“Given the history of this property, it would not be surprising to face more legal and procedural hurdles before demolition is complete,” attorney Laurie Schmidt said by email.

The order filed Monday stated that the Supreme Court denied the request “because we are not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by this Court.”

The owner had argued that the demolition order was issued without due process of law, and that he wasn’t given enough time to make repairs.

This is the latest development in the years-long effort by city officials to get Dennis Knuth, the house’s owner, to repair or remove the structure that has had a tarp over its roof since 2016.

Under the name of Bailey and Biddle, the LLC listed as the appellant, the owner sought a reversal of the Court of Appeals decision that upheld the city’s 2017 demolition order. That was preceded by concurring decisions by the Berrien County court and the city’s Property Maintenance Board of Appeals that the house was uninhabitable because of extensive mold and water damage, and should be torn down.

In February the Court of Appeals ruled 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.”

The owner also was given a full hearing before the property maintenance board, the court pointed out.

This latest ruling puts the demolition order back into effect, Schmidt said, and the owner has 45 days, or until Nov. 14, to demolish the house. If that is not done, the city will take steps to tear down the building, she added. The cost would be added to the tax bill.

Depending on the condition of the building, some environmental procedures might need to be taken before demolition takes place, the attorney explained.

That’s unless the owner takes any additional action.

“There could be more legal hurdles depending on what approach is taken. It is possible they continue to contest the demolition order,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said she hadn’t heard from the appellant’s attorney, so she didn’t know at this point what their plans were.

The appellants’ attorney could not be reached for comment.

City inspectors began to notice exterior defects at the property at 1051 Niles Avenue 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.

“The Appellant placed a tarp over the roof, but the tarp would often come loose, revealing a hole in the roof. The hole was large enough that birds regularly flew into the home,” court documents stated.

Neighbors complained to city officials that the house is a safety hazard and an eyesore near a major intersection.

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.

A demolition order was issued, and was appealed to the property maintenance board. 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 cracks 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 been cited for property code violations at other locations in St. Joseph.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak