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Billings Park rat infestation highlights rental issues

(Jed Carlson/ A sign from the City of Superior is posted to the fence of a rental property at 2623 North 21st St. in Superior. Seven dogs were found in the rental as well as an infestation of rats.

What began with a neighbor's complaint about rats has led to a raze and repair order for a rental home in Billings Park, a half-dozen visits by Guardian Pest Solutions to depopulate the rodents and criminal animal mistreatment charges filed against the renter.

On July 18, a neighbor reported seeing rats nesting in a car and tall grass on the property at 2623 N. 21st St.

"They also said they didn't believe any people were occupying the house, but there were several dogs being kept there and people would come by periodically to look after them," Superior Code Compliance Officer Lee Sandok Baker said.

Her investigation began the following day with an exterior view of the building and contact with the tenant, Peter Truong. He confirmed that he was keeping dogs in the home while living elsewhere. The property owner, Mark Groskreutz, lives in North Dakota, according to the raze order. He told Sandok Baker he was not aware of the condition of the house or the situation with the dogs.

On July 23, Superior police officers took seven dogs from the home. According to the Humane Society of Douglas County, which received the canines, five have been adopted. One had to be euthanized due to poor health and another will be adopted out once a thyroid condition is controlled with medication, according to shelter director Sheila Keup.

Truong, 31, of Duluth made his initial appearance Aug. 21 in Douglas County Circuit Court on three charges of mistreating animals and two counts of fail to provide proper food and drink to confined animals, all class A misdemeanors.

According to the criminal complaint, the floors of the house were covered in fecal matter and liquid. The smell was unbearable at times. Four smaller dogs were kept in a wire kennel and pet taxi; three larger dogs were loose in the main floor of the two-story residence.

The dogs' nails were extremely long, two of the large dogs were emaciated and another had visible muscle atrophy, according to the complaint.

Work on the rat infestation began after Sandok Baker and Chief Building Inspector Peter Kruit toured the interior of the home July 24. They informed Groskreutz of the problem and he contracted with Guardian.

The Superior-based company began the extermination process by treating rat burrows on the exterior of the house July 27 and 30. Interior extermination efforts began Aug. 13 and Guardian has returned to the property three additional times. Sandok Baker said they were scheduled to return this week as well.

"It was a very, very significant problem that happened very fast," Superior Mayor Jim Paine said. He praised Guardian and its effort to combat the rodent problem.

A number of additional safety hazards were found at the home, according to a raze and repair order the city issued Aug. 3. Hazards include a cracked and buckling foundation wall; interior walls with missing plaster and sheetrock, exposing open and unprotected electrical boxes and wiring; dilapidated water heater venting; and a shaky front deck and steps.

Sandok Baker said the owner has been cooperative since being contacted by the city.

Groskreutz was given 30 days to either tear the home down, appeal the order in court or provide the city with a plan to repair the home to a safe condition.

"The owner has not confirmed his plans for the house one way or the other, yet," Sandok Baker said Wednesday. "He has until Sept. 3 to let us know."

Jim Paine said he's still committed to saving structures in the city, but he wasn't sure this property could be saved.

The problems had been developing in the house for weeks and spilled over into the neighborhood. He said the situation highlights the need for some sort of rental inspection program.

"We don't have very many enforcement tools available to us," Paine said. "Now we've seen how bad it can get."

The purpose behind inspections isn't to nitpick or pile fees on landlords, he said. It's about helping generate healthy, safe environments for residents.

"We would work with landlords to make it fair for everybody," Paine said.

But they can't.

State law prohibits cities, villages, towns and counties from enacting ordinances that require a rental property or rental unit to be inspected. Inspections can only be conducted following a complaint by any person or if it is required under state or federal law.

That makes it harder for municipalities to enforce common-sense safety solutions, Paine said.

"This is just one issue," he said of the animal problems at 2623 N. 21st St. "What about mold, structural issues, ventilation, improper insulation or wiring?"

The city will continue to do what it can.

"At the end of the day, we will be protecting the health and safety of the neighborhood," the mayor said. "We shouldn't have gotten to this point."

Truong was released on a $300 cash bond and ordered not to possess any animals. His next court appearance is set for Oct. 22. If convicted, each of the counts carries a maximum penalty of nine months of imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.

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