It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes it takes the full weight of the Superior City Council to address a neighborhood issue.
That was the case Tuesday, Oct. 20, when the council approved a request from City Attorney Frog Prell to seek a court injunction to aggressively pursue removal of debris and junk vehicles from a property on a Lackawanna Avenue cul de sac in Billings Park.
Prell said his goal is to get the court to order the property owner to keep her property free of debris and rubbish so the city can abate the problem without seeking a warrant every time.
“It’s a nice neighborhood, and her property is really standing out lately,” Prell said.
The decision left the homeowner, Karen Strewler, feeling “targeted and harassed” by the city because of where she lives.
But neighbors say they feel the same way in their once quiet, peaceful neighborhood.
“All I’m going to say is letters have been written to our city attorney," said Scott Craker, who lives next door. “We’ve talked about this. I’ve talked about this to code compliance. I’m exhausted. I can’t do anymore. I’m here with my neighbors, and I would like you to really consider today what the city attorney is going to present. I have no more words.”
In a letter to the city, Craker and his wife, Nancy, wrote that the property was not well-maintained, but it was tolerable until about a year ago.
He said there have been numerous visits from the city’s code compliance officer, and police are there frequently.
According to Superior police records, there have been 14 police calls to the Strewler home in the last year for issues such as suspicious people, harassment and trespassing.
“There are flood lights and flashlights in neighbors’ bedrooms,” Rhoda Nagorski told the council Tuesday.
She said people who visit the house have no regard for traffic rules, making the neighborhood unsafe for children.
The Crakers wrote they decided not to babysit their grandchildren because of the influx of suspicious people in the neighborhood.
“Many of the neighbors are reluctant to say anything for fear of retaliation or confrontation with the owner and/or person living there,” Gary Johnson wrote in a letter to the city Oct. 16.
“My wife and I don’t feel safe or comfortable living here as we once did,” Johnson wrote. “We also feel that unsightly junk on their property and lack of maintaining their property is depreciating our neighborhood."
Since January, the city’s code compliance office issued notices to remove inoperable and illegal vehicles, scrap and debris from the property at 2344 Lackawanna Ave. A final notice issued in March specifically identified snowmobiles and other vehicles and equipment, vehicle parts and tires, construction materials, indoor furniture, garbage bags, pallets, scrap wood and construction debris that were required to be removed from the property.
A week later, the homeowner's failure to comply with the order prompted the first of 15 citations issued for prohibited storage and failure to keep property free of garbage, refuse and debris.
Prell said fines so far total about $3,200.
“I was in the hospital having emergency surgery,” Strewler said. “My life has been in turmoil this past year. I asked for their help. The mayor said he would work with me.”
Mayor Jim Paine said when she called his office, he did offer to help if there were no new additions to the junk in the yard and if she made an effort to get rid of some stuff in the next week.
“That didn’t happen,” Paine said. “If anything, it got worse by the end of the week … She wasn’t willing to help herself so we had to escalate from there.”
Strewler said after nearly losing her leg to sepsis, the city showed up at her home with a warrant and a contractor on a morning when she had three doctor’s appointments to get to and began removing her stuff.
It was taken to a storage unit Strewler had rented, Prell said.
Vehicles that had been placarded for removal were gone when the debris was removed from the property June 25, according to code compliance records.
Six of the citations issued came after the city’s abatement effort in June failed to solve the problem.
It’s not entirely unprecedented that the City Council would get involved in code compliance issues. In 2005, the council approved paying back taxes on an eight-plex on John Avenue after Douglas County had taken the tax deed on the property.
The move kept the previous owner from repurchasing the building so the city could raze the building that had been problematic for neighbors for years because of its condition and frequent police calls.
“I would push back against the idea that this is a neighborhood dispute,” Paine said. “The neighbors are certainly upset, but this is much bigger than that … This has risks for the whole city because if a person can get away with not following the code, the code doesn’t apply to anyone at all. I think it was important the council step in and say ‘We are united as a governing body and we’re going to enforce our laws.’”