In Fernville and all over our area, we are facing a steep learning curve in order to understand the process of home condemnation after the flooding damage. Tri-County COG IBC Inspection Service (Tri County Council of Government, International Building Code) is the third-party agency that is legally responsible for inspecting flood damaged homes for the Commonwealth here in Columbia County. They cover Fernville and the 22 other municipalities surrounding Bloomsburg. The town of Bloomsburg has their own inspectors.
Stephen G. Bielskie, Sr. is the person from Tri-County COG IBC whose duty it is to inspect homes and report damage levels back to the municipality who will then condemn the homes if they are found to be unsafe for habitation. Municipalities provide a list of homes to inspect and he is responsible for conducting the inspections and sending copies of the reports back to the local governments. There are several levels of damage and it is important to understand the differences between each.
According to Mr. Bielskie, homes can be labeled:
- Damaged (impacted but still able to be lived in)
- Condemned (impacted and unable to be lived in until repairs are made)
- Condemned and Destroyed (impacted, unable to be lived in, and not able to be repaired)
A home that is condemned is uninhabitable, but it can be repaired and re-inhabited. However, homes that are condemned and labeled “destroyed” generally must be demolished.
There are several reasons a home might be condemned. Most of the homes that have been condemned after the flooding have been designated as such for health and structural reasons. Owners must make corrections to the homes in order to make them clean, safe, and livable. Any structural damage must be repaired before owners can move back in. Some of the condemned homes have also been labeled “destroyed.” In these cases, owners may have no other choice but to demolish their homes. In Mr. Bielskie’s words, “The only good news right now is that the number of condemned homes is starting to come down, as owners make repairs and get rid of mold.”
There is, however, still a lot of ambiguity as to what happens to condemned properties — especially the destroyed ones. Will FEMA initiate buy-outs? Do the owners have a responsibility to demolish the structure and make the land clean and safe? Ideally individuals would have the liberty to do what they see fit with the property. However, this isn’t always in the best interest of the public especially if the current condition of the property puts the public safety and health at risk. If it is determined that public health is at risk, the local, state or federal government (after providing just compensation) can take possession via eminent domain. This shifts responsibility of the property away from the individual and on to the government.
But with the future of compensation funding uncertain in these economic times, we are presented with more unknowns. Even if disaster relief funding remains at current levels, there still may be a rough ride ahead. After previous historic flooding in Hemlock Township, the municipality was required to pay half of the compensation for homes destroyed in order to get any federal funding. It would be very difficult for the municipality to pay half of the amount for homes now declared destroyed from the recent flooding. And further complicating the matter is the fact that no one seems certain as to how many homes are actually considered destroyed in Fernville and beyond. The township is currently working on guidelines with the other Emergency Management Agencies (PEMA, FEMA, local EMA) to deal with the severely damaged homes.
Without immediate action our public health may also be at risk. Many condemned homes have had their power turned off, meters removed, and their water and sewer lines cut. Without the use of these utilities, it will be very difficult to correct flood related problems now affecting these properties. If you don’t have the furnace, sump pump, dehumidifiers, fans, and water for cleaning up, mold and other problems are only going to multiply. If the owners are unable or unwilling to return their properties to a safe, clean, and livable state, then this leaves neighbors and local government to deal with the fallout. Potential infestation of rodents and bugs, the spread of mold, and a host of other health related problems are of real concern.
The tight-knit and resilient community of Fernville has seen flooding before but this time it may be a game changer. According to supervisors, one of the ideas on the table is to require owners to elevate homes above flood level or move them entirely if flood damage has exceeded 50% of the home’s market value. The only other option would be to demolish the property. It is entirely unknown whether home owners could afford or would even be willing to do that. But one thing is for certain— the landscape is going to change along Drinker Street. In Mr. Bielskie’s words, “People might have to raise up their houses, move them, or take them down. Personally, I think those houses with repetitive damage need to be bought out by FEMA. But there are no real answers from anyone right now.”
This is an ongoing discussion and we can all continue to help one another figure out the answers. Please comment below and let’s get a discussion going that takes us in a positive direction.
Mike Fritz for The Bloomsburg Daily