Hilliard Northwest News

City seeks court order on burned 'eyesore'

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Hilliard officials are seeking a court order for the owner of the home at 4907 Britton Farms Drive to repair fire damage from nearly two years ago.
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By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Hilliard has a Jan. 6 hearing scheduled in the Environmental Division of the Franklin County Municipal Court to obtain an order for the owner of a Britton Farms Drive residence to repair fire damage from nearly two years ago.

The city is seeking a preliminary injunction hearing Jan. 6, asking the court to declare the property a nuisance and order its renovation.

"We are hopeful that this eyesore to the surrounding neighbors is renovated or demolished in the near future and we are doing everything we can legally to make that happen," Law Director Tracy Bradford said Dec. 5.

But a Dublin attorney representing the homeowner said Dec. 6 chances for the hearing are "slim to none" because of the difficulty of reaching his client, who lives in Egypt.

"I'm disappointed (the city) is going forward with an injunction hearing," said Robert Kerpsack, an attorney representing Asmaa El Nagar, the owner of the burned residence at 4907 Britton Farms Drive.

Kerpsack said he advised Bradford he was not authorized to accept mandatory personal notification of the proceeding on behalf of his client, and advised her of the difficulty of serving a defendant living out of the country.

Bradford acknowledged that difficulty.

"Service on his client could be problematic," Bradford said in an email Dec. 9.

Kerpsack said he was not aware Bradford was seeking injunctive relief until ThisWeek advised him.

Kerpsack further advised a trial also is set to begin Jan. 6 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court concerning a civil lawsuit El Nagar has filed against her insurer, Liberty Mutual.

El Nagar filed the suit because Liberty Mutual, citing an arson finding, will not pay her claim, Kerpsack said.

ThisWeek's attempts to contact Liberty Mutual officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, residents are caught in the middle, growing ever more frustrated that the fire-damaged residence has been permitted to remain since the early morning fire on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2011.

"It's beyond disbelief and we're (mad)," said Bob Stepp, 57, of Huntwicke Drive, a past president and current trustee of the Britton Farms Homeowners Association.

"If that was in the mayor's backyard, I don't think it would still be here (almost) two years later."

"I think there is a lot of feet-dragging," said Todd Juillerat, 48, of Huntwicke Drive. "I find it hard to believe (the city) can't push the issue."

"It's an eyesore," said Don Kemp, 70, of Britton Farms Drive, who last year mowed the lawn at the residence several times, even though city officials have arranged for maintenance of the property.

The case is unique in several aspects, Bradford said, adding she has kept residents who live near the burned house apprised of the city's efforts.

City officials have been somewhat stymied, Bradford said, because the homeowner is living in another contry.

Kerpsack said his client is not disputing the arson; she is disputing that she allegedly participated in or directed the arson, as Liberty Mutual alleged in its refusal to settle the claim.

"That's a standard defense of insurance companies whenever there is arson," Kerpsack said.

Kerpsack said Liberty Mutual "did not oppose" a recent court entry to relieve his client from preserving the property.

"My client's house is still the subject of a pending legal matter, but we no longer have to preserve it," he said. "It can be sold and that is the intention of my client."

A statutory waiting period for the homeowner to redeem a tax certificate issued while the property tax was delinquent further delayed the city's efforts to abate the problem, Bradford said.

There is no mortgage on the house; however, the property was delinquent for a period of time, Bradford said.

Bradford said a tax certificate for the property, in the amount of $18,157, was sold to Woods Cove III, a California company, in November 2012.

By law, Bradford said, El Nagar had a one-year redemption period to reimburse the certificate holder the amount due, plus interest.

El Nagar redeemed the tax certificate Oct. 29, 2013, Bradford said.

"During this time, the owner filed suit against her insurance company (for not paying her claim)," Bradford said. "Because she was contesting the finding of arson, the home was considered physical evidence and could not be (altered)."

Since then, Bradford said, Kerpsack notified her she intends to sell the residence.

The fire was initially investigated as a hate crime, Bradford said.

Norwich Township responded to the blaze at 5:24 a.m. Jan. 16, 2011. Mohamed Soltan, then 24, and Ahmed Mahmoud, then 19, safely escaped the fire. Soltan is El Nagar's son.

"To date, no arrests have been made, but the case remains open," Hilliard police Sgt. Dave Cunningham said.

"We understand the frustration experienced by the neighbors, but we have filed our nuisance action in court and believe we will now obtain results," Bradford said.

The city is not seeking to demolish the home, Bradford said, as that would require separate action to obtain a permission-to-enter order to ascertain if structural damage would require it.

The city does not believe it to be so badly damaged, Bradford said, and the nuisance action requests the current or future owner to repair the damage.

The home has remained boarded up, neighbors said, and someone cut the grass several times during the summer, but the house continues to affect their quality of life.

"My daughter graduated from (Hilliard Davidson High School) and we rented a place for her party," said Juillerat, because of the house's appearance and the uncertainly of activity at the residence.

"It's typical of the nuisance that house has been."