Clatsop County commissioners directed staff Wednesday to work on taking possession of a foreclosed property in Jeffers Garden about a year ahead of schedule. The decision came during a first-of-its-kind hearing for the county.
Under state law, the owners were allowed to keep the property for two years after it was foreclosed in October. But county officials say the tenants have decreased the property’s value, prompting Wednesday’s decision. The county has never conducted such a hearing, which was allowed under a 2003 ordinance, according to County Counsel Heather Reynolds. Witnesses testified after being sworn in and were subject to questioning from commissioners as well as cross-examination.
“The county has not had a property in foreclosure that presented both the serious condition and the health dangers that this property presents,” Reynolds said.
The commissioners’ unanimous decision was based on their finding that the property was “wasted,” meaning those who own or are allowed to use the property have diminished its value through deterioration of the land or creation of a nuisance.
The value of the property has dropped $8,000 since October, and refurbishing the property will cost $80,000, according to Johnson’s estimates. In addition to other fees, owners could be subject to a fine of at least $16,000 for the waste.
The property foreclosed after its owners — Steven and Scott Wood — hadn’t paid property taxes for five years. Steven Wood died in 2007, but his name remains on the title.
The county has not been able to contact Scott Wood. He is ill and was not able to attend Wednesday’s hearing, said Tyler Morehouse, a friend.
Recently, a number of people have inhabited a three-bedroom house and a host of recreational vehicles on the nearly 1,400-square-foot lot. Morehouse said the majority of the people living there were squatters who have recently left.
“We don’t want nothing to do with these people out there,” Morehouse said. “They’re running over Scott.”
People on the property have allegedly stolen about 20,000 gallons of water from the Lewis and Clark Water District after cutting a lock off a meter. James Niekes, a next-door neighbor, reported that they had tapped into his electrical system. Niekes also said items have been stolen from his property.
The squatters, who haven’t had sewer services for about 1 1/2 years, also allegedly have been using a nearby ditch to dump buckets of human waste. Niekes said he built a concrete structure to prevent sewage from running onto his land. Rats, garbage and abandoned vehicles have also accumulated.
The Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office has responded to more than 30 calls at the property since it was foreclosed, including six warrant arrests, six emergency medical responses and one assault. Drugs have also been recovered, Chief Deputy Paul Williams said.
“We’ve seen the number of calls dramatically increase as time moves along,” Williams said.
When a county Public Health Department employee approached the property with three sheriff’s deputies in July, one person fled and was eventually arrested on a warrant. After the chase, a deputy — covered to his waist in human waste — reported he had “found the ditch.”
The Lewis and Clark Volunteer Fire Department has responded to three fires at the property this year, all of which appeared to be intentionally started, Chief Jeff Golightly said. One involved a woman setting fire to a bath tub, while another featured burned garbage that caused two-story flames.
“When it is the Woods’ house, generally law enforcement is on the way to meet us there,” said Brandin Smith, a volunteer firefighter.
The county posted public health hazard signs in August.
“I just know that it was a very unsanitary property that, honestly, nobody should have been living at that time,” County Environmental Health Specialist Nancy Mendoza said.
Commissioner Lianne Thompson asked Williams to advise the county on how to better manage similar issues if they arise in the future.
“I think this is an example of the county doing just that,” Williams said. “I also am hopeful that we can actually revise the code so that it has some teeth so that we don’t have to wait around for the person to pass away or to sell the property for the county to actually do something about it without incurring a significant cost on the county’s part.”
Commissioners are expected to adopt an official order to take possession of the property later this month. The county would seek to claim the deed within 30 days.