ELKO – It’s been a year since the City of Elko was offered a two-story building on the corner of Fifth and Idaho as a donation.

The structure at 397 Fifth St. was the home of several businesses for decades, but has been vacant for several years. Since then, it has been boarded up and repaired for public safety.

But just because a building is boarded up does not mean it has been condemned, said Scott Wilkinson, assistant city manager.

“Condemnation of property is a big step,” Wilkinson said. “To do that is a very significant decision undertaken by the city.”

Covered windows are not a tell-tale sign that a building has come under the city’s scrutiny, Wilkinson said, but the property owner’s acknowledgement of a possible safety violation.

“When someone boards up their windows, they are eliminating a hazard to the public,” Wilkinson said. “Exposed glass on a building that is not in use could present a hazard to the public [and] could encourage unsafe behavior.”

Currently, the fate of the vacant building at Fifth and Idaho remains unclear from owner Janet Pescio if it is going to be demolished or renovated, said Cathy Laughlin, city planner.

Realtor Dusty Shipp with Keller Williams, who represents the owner, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Wilkinson said the city has heard criticism regarding other vacant buildings that look “unsightly,” notably the building on the corner of Idaho and Fourth streets that fell into disuse years ago when Diana’s Fine Jewelry closed.

“People point to [that] building on Fourth Street and say, ‘It’s boarded up. You need to declare it a nuisance,’” Wilkinson said.

“It may be unsightly, but it’s a big step to declare it a nuisance,” Wilkinson said. “You need to truly have a hazard.”

Pedro Ormaza, who owns the building, said he is uncertain of his building’s future, citing an attempt to remodel it into a bar three years ago.

“The city council didn’t want to put in any other bars or food service,” Ormaza said. “It’s been empty ever since, and it’ll probably be torn down.”

Ormaza said if he does “get a client who wants to build something there for a 5-10 year lease” he would work on remodeling the building.

“I’m not going to build anything unless I have a tenant,” Ormaza said.

City procedures and policy

If residents or a neighbor notices a hazard or a notice, they can submit a written complaint to the city, who then follows up on the grievance and contacts the property owner.

A percentage in “the high 90s of contacts are responsive and address the problem,” Wilkinson said. “Most people have a positive response, [but] we always have a few that resist.”

The nuisance code defined in section 5-1-4A, found on the city’s website, states that a nuisance is declared when “a business, premise or acts … shall intend to injure or interfere with the health, peace, comfort, convenience, safety or enjoyment of the public or one or more persons in the neighborhood.”

Coming under public safety, declaring a nuisance “allows the city to talk about the property,” Wilkinson said.

When a building becomes a nuisance in the eyes of the city, it does not mean it is automatically condemned, Wilkinson said. “It’s a totally different action on the part of the city between declaring a nuisance and condemning a building.”

“To condemn a building is a legal process ... because of private property rights,” Wilkinson explained. “If we declare a nuisance on a property that has any significance, we go through a legal process and to court.”

The city gives due process to property owners to comply with the nuisance code. Currently, the city is in the process of working with a residential property owner to correct an issue.

“The property owner hired an engineer who has stated with certainty to the city that he is able to mitigate the issues,” Wilkinson said.

“We’ve allowed them to abate and board up [the building],” Wilkinson said. “We’re working with the property owner to resolve their issues because it’s a significant amount of money, but in the meantime, we have to have a safe property for the public. We don’t want kids going in there.”

If this property owner is unable to come to a solution, then the city would have to decide what to do, and it would be a lengthy process to condemn and demolish the building, a direction the city does not want to go, Wilkinson said.

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Wilkinson said since he joined the city in 2005, there has been only one condemned residential structure, on Morse Lane, that was “ready to fall down” and had become a gathering place for transients.

“It was unsafe and homeless people were taking advantage of the vacancy and lighting fires in there,” Wilkinson said. “The home was not structurally sound. It was open to the public and nobody was managing the property.”

Because of safety concerns and complaints from neighbors, the city followed through on the process to order the property owners to demolish the building, Wilkinson said, which took extra time because of difficulty in contacting the property owners, an ongoing problem with issuing notices.

“With older properties … the [owners] may not be here or we may have incorrect information,” Wilkinson said. “The most difficult properties have absentee landlords.”

The costs for demolishing go back to the property owner, Wilkinson said. “It’s a lot of money for a lot of people.”

When buildings are demolished, “what you see going on are decisions made by private property owners, not the city telling them they need to demolish their buildings,” Wilkinson said, pointing to the removal of the Stumble Inn that was on the corner of Silver and Fifth streets.

“The new property owner decided [the building] wasn’t salvageable, so they demolished the building,” Wilkinson said, adding that although the bar was “never condemned, there were concerns by the city staff.”

Because of the high cost to remodel structures, Wilkinson explained the city was unable to re-purpose the old Elko Police Station or find an investor to purchase the building. It was demolished Nov. 3.

“The city can’t afford to [remodel],” Wilkinson said. “We didn’t find someone who wanted to do that level of investment, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll do it.”

Another reason for demolition is that the property is in a quasi-public area with the Elko Convention Center, City Hall, the Municipal Swimming Pool, parks and ballfields nearby.

To put a commercial use building in the middle doesn’t conform to the master plan, Wilkinson said.

Bringing old structures back to life is preferable, Wilkinson said, referring to a recent revitalization of historic downtown buildings on Commercial Street and the renovation of the Henderson Bank Building.

“Those are great projects,” Wilkinson said. “Those [buildings] were made to last for 150 years.”

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Staff writer for the Elko Daily Free Press

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