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Hurricane Michael A Year Later: Panama City Code Enforcement Starting Crackdown On Property Neglect

Valerie Crowder
WFSU Public Medua

At least 90% of structures in Panama City were damaged in Hurricane Michael. One year later, city officials are about to resume code enforcement actions, and residential property owners say they’re ready for the city to begin cracking down on neglected lots that pose a health and safety hazard to their neighborhoods.

Panama City resident Freddie Robinson owns a one-story home in the Cove neighborhood. A year after Hurricane Michael hit, his yard is free of storm debris, and he’s almost finished making repairs.

“I just have a little bit more Hardie board to put on and finish painting,” he said.

Many of Robinson’s neighbors have fixed their homes since the storm, but a few properties on his block have remained untouched.  Robinson’s house is on the corner of E. Third Street and N. Palo Alto Avenue. Across the street to his right, a vacant two-story house rises above tall grass, weeds, and overgrown bushes that almost cover the mailbox and the street gutters.
“It looks like a jungle,” Robinson said. “It’s horrible over there, they actually need to either tear it down or have them sell it.”

After Hurricane Michael hit, Panama City officials paused code enforcement actions on post-storm violations to give residents time to clean up their lots and start repairing their homes.
“At some point in time the homeowner still has to fix it because there are still a lot of homes with trees on their roof,” he said.

Credit Valerie Crowder
Neighbors who live next to the property at 810 E. Third St. have complained to code enforcement several times about the owner's neglect since Hurricane Michael.

 For Robinson, the neglected property across the street is mostly an eyesore. But for Pamela Yates, who lives next door, it’s become a health hazard.

“My cat brought in a rat, and I can’t have that. It just needs to be done, and it’s not that we haven’t called because we have.”
Yates says she’s called the homeowner and code enforcement several times, but the property remains derelict.
“It’s gone too far. I’m not going to have rats in my house because she doesn’t do anything," she said. "And I can’t get code enforcement to do anything.”

Panama City’s code enforcement officers will begin issuing notices for code violations on Oct. 11. The city will start with property owners who haven’t made any progress since the hurricane, said City Manager Mark McQueen.

“They’re particularly residential properties — homes with trees going through the middle of them, crushed cars in the front yard,” McQueen said. “For those folks in particular, the full weight of the code enforcement process has got to be administered.”

He estimates the city will send about 2,000 notices by the end of the year, McQueen said. “If they choose not to do anything, then it would go before the magistrate and the recommendation would be to demo it. It could be a couple thousand by the time it’s all said and done -- I hope not,” he said. 

“At the end of the day, what I really am hoping we’re going to see out of this entire process is that the quality of life in the city of Panama City is much higher—that the economic values and the property values of our community rise.” 
Right now, the city has one magistrate to decide code enforcement cases. McQueen says he plans to ask city commissioners on Tuesday to hire more magistrates to handle a larger caseload and to accelerate the process.

“We’ll have four or five magistrates, with the idea that we’ll be able to move through on a cycle of every two weeks of having a judge hear code violations, as opposed to what it has been historically, every two months hearing code violations.” 

Code enforcement actions will also resume in the unincorporated areas of Bay County on Oct. 11. Almost a third of property owners whose homes were identified as unsafe or unfit have regained compliance, said County Manager Robert Majka. 
“There’s over 1,000 homes on the inventory that we began with, and a little over 300 of those homes have been repaired and come into compliance,” he said. “Through the course of the year, people have been making progress.”
Majka says he expects the county’s first magistrate hearing to take place in January. 

Code enforcement actions have already resumed in the towns of Callaway and Lynn Haven, where a large majority of the structures were damaged in the storm. 

In Callaway, at least 98% of structures had some degree of damage, and town officials identified 300 properties that were damaged beyond repair, said Bonnie Poole, director of code enforcement.

"There have already been notices mailed to each of those property owners," she said. "People are still trying to get a fair settlement from their insurance company."

In Lynn Haven, 85 % of residential properties and 90 % of businesses were damaged. Code enforcement resumed there about two months ago.

Officials are sending about 100 notices per week and magistrate hearings are occurring monthly, said Vicki Gainer, acting city manager. 

“The city is closely monitoring the number of cases," she said. "If additional magistrates are needed, they will be added.”

Delfino Ponce, who lives on N. Palo Alto Avenue in Panama City, says he's ready for the city to address the neglected properties on his block. 

“We all run into the same problem,” he said. “Everybody do the best they can to see some improvement, but they [owners of neglected properties] haven’t done nothing.” 

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.