BRIGHTON - At the Brighton Selectboard meeting on Tuesday evening, the issue of abandoned "eyesores" and cluttered properties, which may be creating possible public hazards, drew a small crowd that turned out to ask the selectboard to take some action. The town health officer held the floor for the first part of the meeting. He had reports on several inspections he had done recently at the request of the board.
Though the issue has been on the agenda and touched on during the past several board meetings, the issue of dilapidated houses seemed to come to a head last evening with Fire Chief Richard Hannux being the major complainant. He wasn’t there in any official capacity, but rather to express his concerns specifically about a neighboring property owned by Wanda Griggs.
Hannux owns property at 153 Railroad Street, which currently has “for rent” signs posted on it. Wanda Griggs resides at 145; the two structures are about ten feet apart.
On the other side of Griggs is Richard Philhower, who lives at 135 Railroad Street, only about 15 feet from Griggs' house. Hannux, Philhower and Ouida Testut, another neighbor who lives two doors down from Griggs, at 179 Railroad Street, all attended the meeting to hear Town of Brighton Health Officer Joe Arborio’s report.
Arborio had investigated complaints about trash being accumulated on Griggs' property, a possible vermin infestation, and unsafe living conditions that included no running water or sewer and a woodstove chimney that had been vented through a window.
Hannux said even though he was the fire chief, he had no authority over the chimney situation, which he clearly considered a fire hazard. “I was told that because it is not a commercial building and the town does not have local zoning ordinances addressing the issue, that the only person with power over the situation is the health officer. If the Griggs' house had insurance on it, I could report it to their insurance company; but since she doesn’t I have no jurisdiction,” said Hannux. “In fact, my insurance rates went up because of her pipe out the window.”
Hannux further alleged that the Griggs' house had previously been condemned and Griggs had moved back in anyway. Town administrative assistant Joel Cope said that was not true because the town has no policies or condemnation process in place to make such a declaration.
“We have no records indicating that ever happened,” said Cope.
Richard Philhower said he wanted to construct a tall fence so he doesn’t have to look at the neighbor’s trash. Testut said the town should take immediate action by selling the house because Griggs owes back taxes and water department fees.
Arborio said he went to the Griggs' house and Wanda Griggs was very accommodating and respectful to his requests and let him inspect the property. “I find this woman to be as compliant as any I have met,” he said.
She has her trash separated out into recyclables and she’s working on putting more stuff into bags, including asbestos shingle siding that has fallen off the building. Arborio said he saw no evidence of any rodents while he was there. “I use all my senses - including smell, sight, sound and touch - and I didn’t see any reason to inspect any further.”
Hannux was concerned shingles left on the lawn had mold on them and were hazardous materials that weren’t being removed quickly enough.
Arborio said he was certified in asbestos removal and the type of shingles being discussed weren’t the same type as asbestos insulation and the mold was green mold, which is on almost every exterior surface this time of year, especially with the rainy wet weather. “The shingles pose very little health threat,” said Arborio.
Hannux and Philhower asked the board to direct Arborio to conduct another inspection to make sure the shingles were being picked up and put in a bag. The board agreed Arborio should go back another day to check on the progress. Arborio added that there is no law “that a person can’t live in squalor” and that he has to follow the law.
When Griggs was contacted for this story, she said she felt harassed by her neighbors and the town. According to town records, the water has been shut off at her house a year ago for lack of payment and that bill is over a thousand dollars and keeps escalating.
“I keep getting charged for water because the pipes run by my door,” she said. Griggs also owes $694 in back taxes and delinquent Tax Collector Muriel Webb said the paperwork was being filed for a tax sale.
Wanda Griggs purchased the house for about $4500 at a tax sale nine years ago and the house was in poor shape then. Since that time, she hasn’t had the means to make repairs and the condition of the property has deteriorated.
“I’m doing the best I can just to survive, and everyone keeps harassing me instead of helping me. I had buyers interested in the house last year so I moved out, but the neighbors (Hannux and Philhower) scared the buyers away. The town also didn’t help because the previous tax sale paperwork was flawed and it took a long time to correct, if it is even right now,” said Griggs. Griggs said she is a desperate woman at this point, and is fragile both mentally and physically. “If anyone really wanted to get rid of me, they would have helped me sell this place, not scared the buyers away.”
Griggs’ residence isn’t the only property that has caught the town's attention. The long vacant “Derocher Estate” located at 560 Derby Street is less than ten feet from the busy road, which is a main thoroughfare into town, and the entire rear of the building has collapsed.
Arborio said the wooden building is open in front with broken glass, and one of the two owners he contacted told him, “There is no chance of the estate being settled” and cleaned up. The board voted to deliver a “notice of intent” from the health officer that he will be following up on the issue. Yet another property on Mountain Street, which is still occupied, has a partially collapsed roof. Arborio said he was going to issue an emergency health order to that property owner that they must take some immediate action to remedy the situation. He was afraid the front wall could fall into the street and onto the sidewalk, injuring someone passing by.
Cope said during the meeting that the town zoning administrator, Guy Daniels, recommends a stricter building code be developed to deal with these issues. “The Planning Board has been discussing it. It is in discussion.”
Cope said without local ordinances addressing the problem, there is little that can be done other than send the health officer to inspect reported hazards and take action if necessary.