El Dorado News

Wednesday
May 23, 2018
El Dorado News Times
News-Times

News-Times

Backlog of condemned properties overwhelm city

By Tia Lyons
This article was published February 5, 2018 at 5:00 a.m.

City officials are taking a multi-pronged approach to tackle a double-sided problem in El Dorado following a recent tip that led law enforcement officers to a gruesome discovery.

Dog fighting — and the animal cruelty that comes with it — has increasingly become troublesome within city limits.

Aldermen, various city departments and the city’s contracted dog control service said area criminals are moving illegal dog-fighting operations from outlying wooded areas to abandoned houses in town.

Charles Hartsell, Union County Animal Control Officer, said he has busted up three dog fights within the past two weeks in vacant properties, including one that left behind a horrific scene.

The city recently razed the house at 707 Louisiana after Hartsell and the El Dorado Police Department received a tip about dog fighting there.

No one was at the house when officers arrived; however, what they encountered was macabre.

“I guess the dog didn’t do what they wanted it to do, so they cut its head off with a machete,” Alderman Vance Williamson said.

City Code Enforcement Officer Kirby Craig said the scene “looked like a slaughterhouse.”

“There was blood everywhere,” added Robert Edmonds, director of public works.

Photographs of the scene showed blood spattered on the walls and carpet and bloody bite sticks — which are used to pry open a dog’s jaws once it has clamped down on another dog during a fight — strewn about.

“They used to hide the dogs and fight them out in the woods, but when they bark, I can hear them and find them,” Hartsell said. “Now, they put them in these houses.”

Three-pronged approach

El Dorado residents and city officials have long complained about the need to rid the city of derelict properties.

Besides being an eyesore, creating neighborhood blight, and posing safety and health hazards, such properties are also a breeding ground for criminal activity, city officials and residents have said.

The city has made some strides over the years to raze vacant, dilapidated properties, including tightening up its condemnation process and developing a city housing code.

The measures were taken, in part, to prevent property owners from allowing vacant properties to fall into a state of disrepair.

Now that vacant houses are increasingly being used for dog fighting and other acts of animal cruelty, city officials are stepping up efforts to take down problematic properties.

After Williamson spoke with Hartsell and Craig about the Louisiana Avenue residence, Williamson called a special meeting that included city officials and representatives from the police, fire and public works departments.

He asked Friday that all three departments work together to address derelict properties in the city.

“I want us to take a three-pronged approach to take down these houses,” he said.

Williamson noted that the Louisiana Avenue house was condemned by the city 18 months ago, but it had not yet been razed because city crews have gotten behind on such projects.

Craig said he has stopped compiling condemnation lists until the city can catch up on the existing list, which has approximately 40 properties.

Edmonds and Mayor Frank Hash said getting the city ready for the grand opening of the Murphy Arts District last October delayed other city projects.

“It’ll be July before we caught back up,” Edmonds said.

Additional funding needed

To move things along, Hash has asked the city council to consider dipping into the city’s reserve coffers to direct $300,000 toward the razing of condemned properties throughout the city.

The money would be used to assist the department of public works in razing houses that are on the condemnation list, the mayor said.

He said an outside contractor could be hired to complement in-house work from the city.

Additionally, Williamson said the city’s finance committee will review the 2018 budget to see if more money can be found to cover overtime pay for the project.

Edmonds and Fire Marshal Jason Evans agreed that adequate manpower is needed to dedicate to the project without affecting other city services.

Evans said the El Dorado Fire Department also has to consider environmental regulations when using abandoned houses for live-fire training.

In December, Fire Marshal Jason Evans and Fire Chief Chad Mosby explained that the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the National Fire Protection Association set the standards and regulations for live-fire training.

When filing an application with ADEQ, firefighters must first conduct a risk assessment for a property and review such factors as the presence and removal of asbestos, if the building is structurally sound, proper ventilation, weather conditions, proximity to other structures, vehicles, water sources, power lines, brush, etc.

Mosby said the ADEQ must sign off on such actions, and the agency stepped up enforcement years ago.

“It made us have to jump through more hoops,” Mosby said.

He and Evans said the EFD used to burn more houses in the past, but with tightened restrictions, the department finds about three or four houses a year that are suitable for live-fire training.

Evans and EFD Capt. Seth Rainwater reiterated Friday that the EFD wants to do what it can to help the city.

“Once the fire department burns it, Mr. Edmonds and his crew have to come through and clean it up,” Hash said.

The department of public works has to file the same notices of intent with the ADEQ before razing a structure, Edmonds said.

Condemnation issues

Edmonds and Craig said they often encounter problems with tracking down property owners.

Many property owners live out of state, and in other cases, several owners are listed for one property — which can further complicate matters, they said.

Craig also said that some property owners cannot afford the costs of razing a structure and hauling the rubble to the Union County Landfill.

“I got several calls about burning when that story was in the (News-Times in December),” Craig said.

“If you tell some people, ‘If you’ll just sign a piece of paper, and we’ll burn it,’ that moves things along a lot faster for some of them,” he continued.

Edmonds and Evans agreed that adequate manpower is needed to dedicate to the project without affecting other city services.

Williamson asked both departments to come up with a budget request for overtime costs and present it to the finance committee for review.

He also called on the El Dorado Police Department to look into nuisance abatement laws for properties — including those that are occupied —that are being used for criminal activities.

“The house doesn’t have to be falling in on itself. It can be a nice home, but if it’s being used for drug activity …,” Williamson said.

“It’s not just dog fighting. It’s drugs. It’s all kinds of things. I’m in these houses, so I see needles — everything goes on inside them,” Hartsell added.

He said the tip for the Louisiana Avenue residence led to another tip that resulted in the recovery of two of five adult pit bulldogs that were stolen from the city dog pound in November.

The dogs were found at 718 E. Oak. He said the dogs were bleeding from injuries that included bite and puncture wounds.

He said the dogs are doing well and have since been adopted.

Two women were arrested on Jan. 24 at the Oak Street residence.

Ashley Andrews, 28, of 718 E. Oak, and Breana Wright, 21, of Smackover, are expected to appear in 35th Judicial District Court on Feb. 26, on a misdemeanor charge of theft by receiving.

Edmonds and Fire Marshal Jason Evans agreed that adequate manpower is needed to dedicate to the project without affecting other city services.

Hartsell said he is still looking for the other three dogs, one of whom was a female who was giving birth when theft occurred.

Eight newborn puppies were found dead on the grounds of the city pound following the theft.

Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@eldoradonews.com.

comments powered by Disqus