Visiting judge will determine units' fate
A visiting Franklin County Municipal Court judge will determine whether any, a portion or all of more than 300 units at Woodcliff Condominiums in Whitehall should be demolished as part of a complaint the city of Whitehall has filed, arguing that the condominiums are a health and safety hazard.
Closing arguments concerning the fate of 16 units were heard July 26 in the courtroom of Franklin County Municipal Judge Teresa Liston in the environmental division of the municipal court.
Liston was appointed to hear the case in lieu of Judge Harland Hale because of a conflict of interest Hale had with a party to the case on an unrelated matter.
On Aug. 20, a two-week hearing is scheduled to begin for all other Woodcliff Condominiums units outside the 16 that are being considered in a separate case and for which closing arguments were made July 26.
Following closing arguments, Liston and Bryan Wagner, chief environmental specialist for the environmental division of municipal court, conducted an exterior inspection of the 16 units in question.
The survey was an "off-the-record viewing," made without the presence of attorneys in the case but with their consent. Liston could consider what she views in rendering her verdict.
Liston is expected to make interior inspections of all 16 units in the near future, Wagner said, though it is not known whether Liston will render a verdict prior to Aug. 20, when a complaint will be heard regarding the remainder of the property, Wagner said.
The verdict may be appealed by either party to the 10th District Court of Appeals.
Whitehall is seeking an order for 317 units at Woodcliff Condominiums, at the northeast corner of East Broad Street and South Hamilton Road, to be demolished.
Joe Durham, an attorney with Eastman and Smith, representing the city and the Franklin County Board of Health, said July 30 that Woodcliff owners have failed to comply with a court order to provide a plan for repairing the property.
The board of health in 2004 found water and mold damage and issued orders to abate the conditions. Similar orders were made in 2005 and 2006. Based upon complaints from the board of health, the court deemed the property a nuisance in 2008.
"A plan was due in July 2011 (by order of the court), showing how these problems would be addressed," Durham said.
"August, September, October, November and December went with no plan," he said. "In January (2012), we filed a motion to have them demolished. ... They remain a nuisance."
City attorney Mike Shannon has said that no significant improvement has occurred thus far.
"We are not seeing any real improvement with rehabilitation," Shannon said in June, when the current court hearing commenced.
The city's effort to demolish the condominiums, built in the 1950s, began more than four years ago. Whitehall first filed a complaint in 2007 against Woodcliff Condominiums, citing it as a public nuisance.
In February 2008, Judge Hale ordered Woodcliff owner Tom Oleander, having been cited for numerous health and building-code violations, to cede daily management of the facility to a court-appointed receiver; however, he retained ownership of more than 200 units.
During a June 19 hearing, Liston granted a request to WC Management that it be removed as receiver. Liston named attorney Mark Froehlich as receiver, the third receiver since legal action against Woodcliff Condominiums began.
WC Management had been both the property manager and the receiver but successfully argued that enough progress had been made in addressing violations that it should be relieved of its responsibility as a receiver.
"There is no question a lot of work remains to be done, but it is moving in the right direction," attorney Greg Peterson said in June.
Peterson is an attorney with Peterson, Ellis, Furgus and Peer, the law firm that represents WC Management.
Other opinions differ.
Wagner, who visited the site July 26, said the exterior of the 16 units, 15 of which are not occupied, continue to violate Whitehall city code.
"The siding is in disrepair ... windows are in disrepair ... and the downspouts and gutters need fixed," Wagner said.
The 16 Woodcliff units currently under review by the court are all owned by Oleander. However, the remaining 301 units to be heard beginning Aug. 20 are owned by about 30 different individuals, although Oleander owns about 200 of them.
Any of those that Oleander does not own are owner-occupied condominiums.
Froehlich, who provided testimony July 26, said the condominium association does not have the means to repair the property to meet code requirements.
"The nuisances have not been abated," Froehlich said.
Those nuisances include HVAC problems, sewer connections and electrical wiring that do not meet code and basement foundations that indicate shifting, Froehlich said.
As receiver, Froehlich said, his purpose is to "maintain the status quo" and allow the condominiums association an opportunity to repair the violations.
Peterson said in June that his client, as property manager, is frustrated.
"We don't know what the city's plan is (concerning re-development). No one has ever said that it is not economically viable to renovate the condominiums," Peterson said.
In fact, Peterson said, investors are lined up for the opportunity to make such improvements.
Whitehall officials and the Franklin County Board of Health apparently see it differently, though, as efforts continue to demolish the structures.
Though Peterson concurs that some units need much work, other units that have passed inspection should be considered as an example of what could be accomplished, he said. Conditions at the property vary so much, he said, that one could find a unit to support an argument to either demolish or refurbish the Eisenhower-era complex.
"But I don't think demolition is the right course," he said. "Knocking down a unit here and there will leave a lot of missing pieces, not a pretty smile. The best use is refurbishing it, and it is feasible to do it."