ELIZABETHTOWN — Don’t let the stately magnolia trees, clusters of grape vines, Spanish moss draping by the side window, or the 1800s white brick exterior with a side balcony fool you — the property on West Broad Street is no gem waiting to be snatched up.
In 2002, John Newton Currie bought from Cecil Warner the property located at 1501 West Broad St. for the sum of $223,000. Since that time, town staff and board members have struggled with Curry, who lives in Jacksonville, over maintaining the property, including the yard and the 4,706-square-foot home.
“We get calls all the time from individuals inquiring about fixing it up or condemning it, or otherwise inquiring about its upkeep,” said Town Manager Eddie Madden.
To date, town staff have been maintaining the front of the property for aesthetic purposes and sending Currie a bill for the upkeep. Madden reported Currie is current on his taxes and has been paying the mortgage on the property for years, despite never having spent a night in his home.
“What complicates things is the fact that he is current on his taxes,” explained Madden. “We’ve made repeated attempts to contact him, usually getting his voice mail. He’s unresponsive to most of our attempts.”
On Thursday, Madden met at the property with Fire Chief Nick West, Deputy Fire Chief Anthony Norris, Elizabethtown Planning Technician Billie Hall, and architect Chris Adams. Having obtained a warrent to enter the premises, the group met to inspect the home for compliance with Elizabethtown’s ordinances.
On approaching the 1932 home from the walkway connecting it with the detached garage, the exterior door leading into the kitchen stands ajar, pried open, and kept that way, by vines growing over the walkway that have attached to the door. A cat scurried away as the group entered the property.
The overgrown weeds and vines all over the property outside indicate dilapidation, but the inside almost defies description. Empty water bottles litter the kitchen, a propane oven sits on the empty living room floor, and mildewed boxes overflowing with clothes, housewares, and documents were piled in almost every room. Light fixtures hang precariously from the ceiling, shattered glass litters the floor, and holes are punched in the wall on the south side, leaving the room exposed to the elements.
“I don’t even know where to start writing,” commented Hall.
Upstairs are six bedrooms, each with problems of their own. A mattress and quilt were lying between the toilet and sink upstairs by a window that overlooked a balcony.
“Easy access in and out,” commented West, pointing to an open window.
“It’s a shame” was a phrase the group kept repeating.
“I used to come here and stay in these bedrooms,” said Hall, calling out friends’ names as she pointed to each of the rooms now fallen into disrepair.
The group had donned face masks before entering, for good reason. In one of the downstairs rooms, the ceiling has collapsed, and insulation hangs down in the room, almost reaching the piles of mildewed junk below it. Most of the downstairs rooms have black mold on the ceilings and walls.
“Structurally, the house could be repaired,” speculated Adams, “but once it’s infested with black mold, it’s over. The mitigation for that is costly, and would involve tearing down the sheetrock and plaster and basically bleaching the wood. When it gets to this point, it’s not worth it.”
Adams estimated the repairs to just get the house in shape would cost around $500,000.
“Even if it were in perfect shape, it wouldn’t be worth that much,” he conjectured.
The Bladen County tax office lists the value of the home at $177,000 and neighboring homes in the $300,000 to $400,000 range.
West added his concerns from a fire department perspective.
“What I’m looking at when I make my report is if it’s a fire risk,” he commented. “Homeless people could be coming in and cooking food or heating during the winter since the property is unsecured — those things are a fire hazard.”
He added. “Black mold is always a safety issue, too. It doesn’t take long to begin experiencing short-term health problems, and prolonged exposure would certainly mean long-term health issues.”
The town’s ordinances allow staff and board members to take action under two provisions: abandonment and minimum housing.
“For abandonment, we’re looking at insects, fire-based danger, absence, sanitary facilities, those kids of things,” informed Hall. “Minimum housing standard gets into plumbing, the foundation, walls, steps, heating and ventilation, bathroom, and weeds.”
Hall said once the reports are written, a determination will be made whether or not the site meets the town’s standards. Regardless of what happens from this point forward, Madden seemed certain it would involve a financial loss to the town.
“We were hoping he would sell the property, and he told me he would,” remarked Madden. “He was to go to the bank and get back to me, and he’s been unresponsive to my attempts to communicate with him since that time.”
If in fact the town were to pursue demolition of the property, Madden estimated the cost would be upwards of $50,000 given the fact that black mold is involved.
Throughout the inspection, visitors repeatedly expressed surprise and disappointment at the extent of the disrepair. When asked if Currie was aware of the extent of dilapidation, Madden said he had a one-hour conversation with Currie about that very topic.
“I went to his home in Jacksonville, which is well maintained, at least from the outside, and sat on his front porch for an hour talking to him,” he said. “He knows.”
Hall said the next step, after the reports are submitted, will be to hold a public hearing, to which Currie will be invited.
“Whether or not he attends the hearing will determine what the next step will be,” she remarked.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.