Dover’s push to demolish troubled property triggers legal battle

DOVER — The fate of a downtown Dover area property remains uncertain, but is not slated for demolition after a Superior Court order on Wednesday.

Resident Judge William L. Witham Jr. determined that City of Dover officials acted “irregularly” when accepting a recommendation to demolish an allegedly dangerous property at 2 S. Queen St. without issuing a written list of facts behind the decision.

Property owner KZ Forever LLC appealed the results of a city council order after a presentation by Dover Director of Planning and Community Development Ann Marie Townshend on Jan. 11 advised that the building should be demolished.

While council approved a motion to demolish, Superior Court found that no specific findings of fact were put into writing, invalidating the decision due to city ordinance guidelines.

“The Council adopted the staff recommendations in their entirety, summarily declaring the property dangerous and ordering its demolition,” Judge Witham concluded in an 11-page order.

Pictured is a vacant property at the corner of South Queen Street and Del. 8 in the downtown Dover area. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

Pictured is a vacant property at the corner of South Queen Street and Del. 8 in the downtown Dover area. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

“But it needed to make specific factual findings after the testimony was heard regarding what made the building dangerous. And those factual findings needed to be made in writing by the action of Council, not days afterward by unilateral action of an individual city staff member … .”

An attempt to contact Ms. Townshend for comment was not immediately successful.

According to the court, Ms. Townshend sent a letter to KZ Forever on Jan. 28 to notify it of council’s decision and considered the correspondence to constitute required written findings of fact and order.

KZ Forever appealed to Superior Court on Sept. 6.

“The Petitioner argues that the Council committed legal error by failing to provide substantive notice according to [Dover Code of Ordinances], additionally implicating due process concerns,” Judge Witham wrote.

“It further contends that the Council failed to create an adequate record by omitting findings of fact or a written order.”

Council maintained that it followed the ordinance and due process, “or in the alternative that the Petitioner waived the argument when it failed to raise the claim before the Council,” according to the Court order.

“The Council created an adequate record, it argues, when the Dover Director of Planning and Community Development sent a letter containing factual findings to the Petitioner.”

Facts of the matter

According to facts of the matter, KZ Forever purchased the property in February 2015. The location “had a checkered code enforcement history. Several months after the property was sold, city officials condemned it because of a number of violations.”

A no trespassing sign is posted on a property a 2 S. Queen Street in the downtown Dover area. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

A no trespassing sign is posted on a property a 2 S. Queen Street in the downtown Dover area. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

A series of inspections and communications followed, and a Dover code enforcement officer sent a violation letter to the owner on Nov. 5, 2015. A list of code violations were detailed, and a follow-up inspection was mandated by Nov. 19.

“For each identified code violation, the letter provided a ‘corrective action required’ to bring the property to code,” according to the Superior Court order.

The letter listed violations and required:

• submission of a renovations permit application along with a structural engineer’s report and recommendations.

• an electrical inspection.

• payment of all fees, citations, and taxes.

The City noted that an appeal was available within five days of receiving the letter.

KZ Forever acknowledged receiving the letter, and responded that the items would not be completed by Nov. 19. The company asked for 90 days to meet the requirements.

City inspectors found no repairs were made, and Ms. Townshend sent a letter to KZ Forever on Nov. 24 notifying that the matter would be discussed at a Council hearing on Dec. 9.

At the public hearing, according to the order, Ms. Townshend presented the property’s history. KZ Forever told Council that, among other things, it “had not received any of the notices sent before November and had difficulty communicating with the city despite several attempts.

“[KZ Forever] also questioned whether Ms. Townshend was qualified to perform property inspection and asked for the city to give [KZ Forever] ‘breathing room’ to address the property issues.”

Council voted for an extra 15 days to “provide the staff with estimates” and the issue was placed on the Jan. 11 agenda.

“Before the next Council meeting, the Petitioner submitted a copy of the structural report, two proposals from the building contractors, and a receipt from an electrical contractor,” the Court order stated.

Ms. Townshend testified on Jan. 11 that the City Building Inspector analyzed the structural engineering report and found it “incomplete because it addressed only some of the identified issues.”

KZ Forever tesified that it would “cure all the defective conditions cited in the Code Enforcement Report” and … was prepared to complete all of the repairs,” according to the Court order.

“After hearing the Petitioner’s testimony, three members of the Council voted to amend the motion to give the Petitioner 90 days to repair or demolish the house, but the amendment failed.

“Instead, the Council voted simply to adopt the staff recommendation.”

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