Shamokin property collapses
SHAMOKIN - The rear of a dilapidated West Mullberry Street home collapsed Sunday morning, and its owner is fretting over the potential legal repercussions since he says he can't afford to have it demolished.
Keith Musser, 59, of Sunbury, paid $1,301.56 for a double home at 624 W. Mulberry St. during Northumberland County's Judicial Sale in August 2011. Two years later, the property, which had been in poor condition at the time of sale, is falling down.
A collapse Sunday morning brought Shamokin Fire Bureau volunteers to the scene. At its rear, the third floor is completely exposed with portions of the exterior wall missing and the roof sagging. Debris appears to have fallen all the way to the ground floor. There's been reports of raccoons and skunks inside.
Rick Bozza, city code officer, says it's in immediate danger of collapsing onto neighboring properties.
Musser, a general contractor, figures it would cost him between $15,000 and $20,000 to demolish. That's money he says he doesn't have, but he also recognizes the potential hazard the deteriorating structure poses to neighbors and pedestrians.
"I'm caught in a terrible, terrible situation. I'm concerned about the liability and I don't want somebody to get hurt," Musser said Monday. "The property should have never been made available for auction."
But it's a buyer-beware market at judicial sale. Jan Nestico, county tax claims director, says all potential buyers are encouraged to do their homework when considering a purchase. They can't enter a property but they can look it over from the outside. That should be enough in most cases to let someone know if a roof is in danger of collapse or, peering through windows, if the interior is falling apart.
"We can't allow people to say 'I'm not happy with this purchase, I don't want it.' It's the responsibility of the buyer. You must know what you're buying," she said.
Problem for Musser, it wasn't exactly he who was buying property that day. He says he had a family reunion and upheld that commitment. He'd already looked over a property listed for sale that he wanted to buy, he says, and planned to repair it at his leisure. He sent a friend to the sale in his place. The addresses got mixed up. Instead of the property he looked over, Musser says the friend bought 624 W. Mulberry St. When he ultimately stepped foot inside 624 W. Mulberry St. for the first time, he says he looked up through the second floor and into the third floor.
"It was silly. It's foolish. I feel like an idiot that it happened," he said.
Musser sought help from city and county officials. He says he also sought help from state legislators. Nestico thinks he waited too long; about one year from the sale. Tax claims has 45 days by law to complete a property transfer on a sale. Had he acted within that time frame, he could have simply not paid for the purchase. His penalty would have been a five-year restriction from participating in a judicial sale.
Both Nestico and Bozza expressed genuine sympathy for Musser. But the property and the problem is his burden. Unless he decides not to pay taxes, that is. If he does that, after three years it will revert back to the county tax claims. The 2012 taxes have already gone unpaid.
"I don't want through some devious loophole, attempt to circumvent the law. It appears as though the property should never have been made available for a tax sale. It was shot anyway," Musser said.
Bozza agrees. Properties in this condition shouldn't be up for sale, he said Monday. He says he reviewed a list of properties up for sale this past June and visited each one. He called and asked to have one property removed that he felt was unfit for sale, and expects to do the same moving forward.
However, Musser may be facing daily citations. Bozza says after 1 1/2 years trying to remedy the situation, and after sending a certified letter giving him 30 days to initiate repairs or demolition, he may begin filing citations Friday.
Musser figures that could bring him fines between $100 and $300 daily. Bozza, he says, has been very cooperative, but Musser recognizes the code officer has a job to do.
"I basically have been in the position that I'm scared out of my wits that I could go to jail over this. They can begin to levy fines against me," Musser said. "I'm just out on a limb scared out of my wits. I can't afford the fines. ... I can't afford $15,000 to $20,000 to have it demolished.
"I'm at an absolute crossroads. I had it bought with the best of intentions."
His hope is that the city would take the property and demolish it through a blight program. Both he and Bozza said the city had been eyeing it for demolition prior to its purchase. That's unlikely now. There's many buildings falling down around Shamokin and several already in line for demolition using state grant funding.
Inside Bozza's office, there's a map on the wall with 18 properties tagged, including Musser's. Folders are hung in a container next to the map containing pictures, certified letters and notes on each dilapidated property. They're targeted by the code office for repair or demolition by the owner. Like Musser, each owner was given a certified letter and 30 days to initiate action.
The code office began the initiative last month. Bozza says seven property owners have since begun taking action to avoid citations. As one property is removed from the map, he says another will be added. He expects more properties to be added, too, aside from any being moved off after meeting code requirements.
It's a new way to track blighted properties and push property owners to resolve code violations. It's being helped along by city police Cpl. Bryan Primerano part-time code officer Bruce Rogers as well as code office secretary Kelly Seroski.
"We're going to have no choice but to probably act on it and hold him accountable somehow," Bozza said of Musser. "We need to come up with a solution to make the property safe."