The owners of a run-down row of abandoned buildings on South Main Street in Waynesville known as a hot-spot for squatters are being asked to clean up their act.
The property owners have been ordered by the town to board up the buildings to end the homeless occupation, and if that doesn’t work, to tear them down. An official “close and vacate” order was issued in early December.
“They would need to board up all the windows and doors to ensure there is no entry, and make sure it stays that way,” said Waynesville Town Manager Rob Hites.
Complaints over the visual blight of the buildings — spanning an entire city block near the intersection with Allens Creek — are nothing new. But the skid row appearance alone isn’t grounds for town action.
“Ugly isn’t a violation,” said Tom McGuire, Waynesville’s chief building inspector. “It may be an outrage to the adjacent property owners, but if the building is secure, that’s the limits of our jurisdiction.”
The buildings weren’t secure, however, prompting the town to draw the line. The buildings were routinely broken into, and it appeared the owners had given up.
Locks were broken, windows were busted out, crawl spaces were pried open — and it was largely left that way, providing easy egress and ingress by squatters.
“There’s a way into every single one of them,” said Gary McCurdy, a homeless person who admitted to being desperate for shelter once and spending a night in one of the buildings.
Since the town order in December, the building owners have made an attempt to shutter them. But as of last week, one of the boarded-up openings had been punched out, providing access to the buildings again.
That’s exactly what McGuire was afraid of.
“People who are homeless and don’t have somewhere to live feel very proprietary. They feel like they have an interest in it,” he said. “If you go away for a week, don’t be surprised if you come back and find people living in it again.”
That’s why the town is hoping the property owners will agree to demolish the buildings.
“If it keeps getting broken into on a weekly basis, you would have to say ‘It’s obvious you can’t keep it secure, so tear it down,’” McGuire said.
Hard to secure
Brian Noland, a real estate agent with Beverly Hanks, represents the owners of the four buildings targeted by the town crack down. He said it’s not the property owners’ fault.
“They were all locked up and closed up, and then things kept happening,” Noland said.
The buildings all have different owners, and some have more than one owner. While some would be willing to go ahead and demolish them, others either don’t have the money or don’t want to spend it.
There could also be asbestos in some of the buildings, which would add to the cost of demolition.
“It’s expensive with asbestos removal,” Noland said. “Right now, it’s on hold because several of the owners don’t have the money to do it.”
South Main paralysis
The owners of the buildings have had them up for sale for some time, but they face a conundrum.
“It has been an extreme challenge to get them sold,” Noland said.
A road widening project slated to start in 2022 will dramatically change the landscape along South Main. Several buildings currently considered an eye-sore will be demolished for right-of-way.
The project has been on the books in some form or fashion for more than a decade, with property speculation on hold as would-be buyers wait to see what will happen.
In the meantime, it has all but paralyzed redevelopment of South Main, and the buildings become more and more ramshackle with each passing year.
Prospective developers are gun shy to buy up the property until clear right-of-way lines are established by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
“The question is, are they truly taking the building or just a few parking spaces? So it is just in limbo,” Noland said.
The blighted appearance of the abandoned block was brought up as a problem by Alderman Jon Feichter at a town meeting in October.
“It looks like something from the zombie apocalypse,” Feichter said.
While campaigning door-to-door during the election, Feichter said several people in the greater Hazelwood community shared concerns about the abandoned properties.
Feichter acknowledged the dilemma property owners face over uncertainty with the road project that’s still two years out at best.
“I completely understand what they are waiting for, but it is a main thoroughfare into town, and it looks just awful,” Feichter said. “Can we require them to cut the weeds down at least?”
At one point, a developer made an offer to buy up the entire block for a commercial development, rumored to be a Dunkin Donuts and Cook-Out. But the deal fell through.
“There was a contract on all the buildings, and they felt like it was a done deal, so they quit taking care of the buildings. But it didn’t close,” said Ron Breese with RE/MAX Executive.
One of the property owners — Billy Sawyer of the former Jim’s Drive-In — felt wronged by the saga and hired on Breese after the deal went south. Sawyer had still been in operation at the time, but closed down due to the offer. When the deal didn’t go through, it was too late to reopen.
“He’d gotten rid of all his equipment. It’s sad,” Breese said.
The former Jim’s Drive-In is the only one on the block that isn’t part of the town’s crack down.
Tracy Asmann, who’s been homeless most of her life, took up residence inside one of the buildings in December before the town’s order to lock them down.
“There could be people sleeping all through here and you wouldn’t know it,” Asmann said at the time.
One night, Asmann was woken by the sound of two men in a neighboring room, banging on the wall. She had barricaded the room she was sleeping in to keep anyone else from wandering in during the night, and was glad she had.
“I had every door locked they could get in,” Asmann said. “They said some very kind of vulgar things, real nasty stuff, and you could hear them laughing about it. They were banging on these walls just to scare me.”
The buildings have now been prominently posted with multiple signs by the town that say “UNSAFE.” They aren’t fit for human occupation, not only because they are structurally unsound, but because they don’t have running water, electricity or functional bathrooms.
The onus is now on the property owners to keep people out of them. If that can be accomplished, the buildings don’t have to be torn down, unless the deterioration worsens and poses a threat to public welfare.
“If they were secure, they wouldn’t be in violation unless they were actively falling down — like pieces falling into the street or the roof collapsing onto itself,” McGuire said. “If it becomes a nuisance or hazard we have the responsibility to do something about it.”
McGuire is hopeful an amicable resolution will be found.
“They are being very cooperative and very helpful,” he said of the property owners.