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The Municipal Building’s main sign is pictured Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Cheyenne. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – The Cheyenne City Council held a work session Friday to discuss its proposed “demolition by neglect” ordinance, which aims to prevent neglectful ownership of historic buildings that can lead to their deterioration and eventual need to be demolished.

Historic Preservation Board member Milward Simpson explained the ordinance would do this by “establishing a historic property owner’s ‘duty to maintain and duty to repair their historic buildings,’” as outlined in the proposed ordinance.

“It also addresses public safety issues that can arise when buildings deteriorate to such a state, and, finally, it seeks to provide a just, equitable and practicable method to address this issue for the property owner, and for the property owner to conduct the necessary repairs to bring a building back into compliance,” Simpson said during the work session.

The next step for the proposed ordinance would be a public forum. Feedback from the council and the public would then be incorporated into the ordinance, which would be introduced at a future council meeting, potentially on March 22.

Examples of properties that would qualify as violating the “demolition by neglect” ordinance include those with a “deteriorated, defective or inadequate” foundation; floor supports; exterior walls, partitions or other vertical supports; ceilings or roofs; fireplaces or chimneys; and stairs, porches, handrails, window/door frames, architectural details, etc.; or that have a lack of weather protection or ineffective waterproofing, or rotting, holes or decay.

Simpson explained that the process would begin when a petition is filed by an “interested party” – a Cheyenne resident, a city employee or the Historic Preservation Board – saying they suspect an instance of demolition by neglect. Additionally, any local or state business, entity or association could write to the board to request an investigation into a property. The petition must list specific structural defects, and only one petition per year could be filed on a property.

Next, the petition would be reviewed by the director of the city’s Planning and Development Department, who would submit the petition to the Historic Preservation Board. The board would then have 45 days to conduct an investigation to determine whether demolition by neglect is taking place. The board would make a finding at its next regularly scheduled meeting.

If the board affirms the petition, a written complaint would need to be given to the property owner within 14 days. The property owner would then have 30 days to begin repair work and 180 days to complete the repairs, with an opportunity to extend that period by another 90 days. Otherwise, the owner would have 10 days to file an appeal.

If the owner appeals, they could request a hearing to dispute the complaint or claim undue economic hardship. A claim of undue economic hardship would go before the Historic Preservation Board, which would decide if the claim has merit, Simpson said. The city would then either work with the property owner on a “plan to relieve economic hardship,” or, if there is no legitimate finding of undue economic hardship, the owner would receive a final notice of their duty to repair the property.

The proposed ordinance would also allow the city to apply to have a court issue an order for repairs so the building is brought into compliance. It would also allow for possible civil penalties against the property owner under the city’s zoning code.

This entire process could be suspended if the property owner and city planning director come to an agreement about repairs, Simpson said.

In a case of intentional or gross negligence, the city could decide not to issue a permit for new construction or land use alteration for five years from the time a neglect violation is found, Simpson said. Additionally, if an owner is not cooperative, the city could do the repair work itself and essentially bill the owner via a lien on the property, which would be released when the city has been reimbursed by the owner.

The proposed ordinance would not prevent the city from enforcing any existing building codes.

CJ Young, the board’s vice chair, emphasized that the ordinance was not meant to encroach on property rights.

“The way we view it is, it’s in the same vein as shoveling your sidewalk, it’s in the same vein as not letting a broken car be abandoned on the side of the road, right? It’s about safety,” Young said. “It’s about preserving the feel and the look and the beauty of our community.”

“This is not intended to punish anyone who acts in good faith,” Young continued. “This is intended for those that show deliberate indifference to a historic property and let it fall apart, knowing it’s falling apart.”

In response to questions about added work for city staff, Simpson said the hope among board members was that the ordinance would be just as much of a deterrent to property owners as it would be “a flood of a need to actually exercise this ordinance.”

“Hopefully, the instances of actually having to apply it would be very limited, which I hope would mitigate the burden on staff somewhat,” he said.

Council member Bryan Cook said he agreed with Simpson, but that at some point the ordinance would need to be used and the council should consider potential funding mechanisms.

Young said this effort by the board to prevent neglect of historic buildings was at least two years in the making.

“Cheyenne has not done a good job of preserving our historic buildings, and it really is a shame, because we have so much history to offer with the world,” Young said. “So, as a downtown business owner, I support this because I believe Cheyenne can be a premier historic community.”

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.

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