Neighbors complain about 6th Ave. home

Benny Westcott

A house reportedly occupied by squatters remains problematic for its neighbors, nearby residents told the Sweet Home City Council Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Nancy White spoke for a second time on issues at 913 6th Avenue, following her initial Feb. 14 complaint to the council, claiming that the situation has escalated following recent media coverage.

“Nothing has changed since the last time I talked to you,” she said. “If anything, it’s gotten much, much worse. We are the laughingstock of the valley now.

“There’s been a TV show about us [KEZI 9’s “Residents unhappy over squatters in their area in Sweet Home” (Feb. 17), []. There’s been a radio show. [White later told The New Era that the Albany radio station KRKT discussed the house on the air.] We have cars driving by, stopping and staring at that house.”

White alleged that people at the home were yelling at neighbors, threatening harassment suits and building daily fires on the property’s carport.

“We’re afraid to leave our property,” she said. “Right now, when we left, there’s a gang in the front yard, and they are watching us. We debated coming, because we’re afraid to leave our property. This morning they were building a fire in the carport by tearing the house apart to feed the fire. They’re going to burn the place down and they’re going to burn the neighbor’s house down.”

She added that the sidewalk outside the home is now impassable thanks to a woman living on the property.

“Their dog was running loose,” White explained. “She got cited for that, so she tied the dogs up so they were across the sidewalk. When someone called about that, they were told, ‘Well, she’s been cited.’ We are at wit’s end. Our neighborhood is destroyed, and these people are laughing at us. They yell at cars as they go by, they yell at the neighbors. The frustration level for us is off the charts. Something has got to be done.”

Neighbor Sherman McDowell also expressed concern, requesting that the Sweet Home Police Department enforce laws “a little bit better” and adding that the house is now occupied by squatters, not tenants.

“This is the group from the camp down at the old City Hall,” he said. “Your problem has come up on our doorstep. The person who was buying the home, who was foreclosed on and left, isn’t even there. This is just homeless people that came up and made it into their camp.

“My children haven’t been outside to play in three weeks,” he continued. “They are dangerous. They are scary. They have threatened my teenage son. And the police came back over to our house after we reported it and said, ‘You just have to let it go, because they thought you were trying to start trouble with them.’

“[I] picked this town because my family needs me here, and I thought it would be the safest place. But this is Portland right now. Our neighborhood is worse in a lot of ways. Because in Portland, people with warrants go to jail.”

He mentioned that an occupant living in a camp trailer on the property had been arrested at least three times on warrants in a two-week period.

“The police officer specifically told her, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll just take you down to the station, do the paperwork and bring you right back up,'” McDowell said. “And that’s what they did. I understand that the jail may not keep people on the warrants, but if the police department doesn’t take them to the jail and do the due diligence …

“I understand there might be a budget issue,” he continued. “If that’s the case, we as a city need to figure out the budget issue, because they’re not enforcing a lot of laws.

“We have to move into the solution, because it is a scary place to live. They’re out there right now, as we speak, waiting for dark to hit. They’re getting their headlights on already, and they patrol our neighborhoods looking for anything to steal and for people to harass as well.”

According to McDowell, the squatters may have been responsible for the Saturday, Feb. 25, fire that destroyed much of the Fir Lawn Lutheran Church. Local police and fire officials, in collaboration with the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Oregon State Police Arson Unit, are investigating the incident as arson after preliminary evidence suggested that the fire was intentional.

The fire, McDowell said, “could have been avoided if they didn’t have a safe place to go. A lot of these crimes could be avoided if they didn’t have the safe haven next to us.”

“I know of five different people on Facebook that have posted videos that have offered them to the police force,” he added. “They’ve never come and picked them up. I’ve offered videos in the last two weeks, good videos of the morning of the church burning, people on bicycles and then the white pickup and the red Blazer going in and out, all within that same hour. None of it’s being followed up on.”

He did note that “The officers do respond. If I call, the officers are there immediately. The officers do try to protect us in that way.”

Sweet Home Police Chief Jason Ogden said he’s directed his sergeants to direct officers to perform extra nightly patrols on 6th Avenue.

“We sympathize with you and understand the frustration,” he said, but added, “It is so hard to deal with these situations, because a lot of times our hands are tied to a certain point, and we’re just at the mercy of a judge or the courts.”

He noted that the difficulty extends to dealing with people perceived as squatters.

“There’s landlord tenant laws, and it makes it very difficult,” he said. “Even if you have a renter that invites other people to the property, once they are there for a certain amount of time, they establish residency, so it makes it very, very difficult to get them out of there. We can’t just go in and make them leave. It has to be a court order.”

Ogden explained that anyone arrested on a misdemeanor charge or warrant is booked at the Sweet Home Police Department. Then, at the discretion of Linn County, perpetrators may be transported to the Linn County Jail in Albany. Most warrants, however, are just cite-and-release warrants, he said.

“That’s the sad part,” Councilor Dave Trask said. “We don’t have any place to take them.”

Ogden said that Lebanon’s jail was currently shuttered but may reopen sometime this year.

“They don’t have room for all of them, anyway,” Trask responded. “It’s a nice facility, but unfortunately we just don’t have the ability to do that.”

“We feel for you,” Trask told McDowell. “We really do. It’s sad. It’s really sad.”

“I drive by your residence every day,” Mayor Pro Tem Greg Mahler said. “I sympathize with you. It is an absolute pigsty, and I absolutely am embarrassed to have to even look at it.

“But I can say on behalf of the city that it’s not that we haven’t done anything. We have made attempts for several years, believe it or not. The problem is that our legal system blocks us every time we get to the point of doing anything. It’s the legal system, the judges that are causing the headache. If we didn’t have them in our way, we’d clean that property and be done. It’s not as easy as that.”

White recited city-code violations she’s witnessed on the property and asked about a lack of enforcement.

“These are codes that are in the books right now,” she said. “If these codes would have been enforced, we would not have the situation that we are living next to. If these codes would have been enforced a year ago or even six months ago, we would not have the drug ring, the theft ring and the garbage dump in our neighborhood. There hasn’t been any abatement. There hasn’t been anything done in three years.”

City Manager Kelcey Young replied that the city abated the property about two years ago.

“Many of those things (the codes) have been enforced,” she said. “However, this has been an ongoing issue for multiple years, and the city has been working on this multiple times. This past round of issues started in November, and the city has been working on them.”

She said the city has sent multiple code violations to MidFirst Bank, the bank that owns the property, “for a while.”

And this time around, she noted that the city has “talked about abating the property. And I think if we had had an idea of how long this would have gone on, we might have chosen to abate the property sooner.”

“I think the abatement process should be started immediately, and we need to do what we can do as a city to take care of our neighborhoods and charge the bank,” Councilor Angelita Sanchez said.

Mayor Susan Coleman agreed.

The city posted an abatement notice on the property Wednesday, March 1, with abatement scheduled Friday, March 10. Additionally, Circuit Court Judge Rachel Kittson-MaQatish ordered that all tenants must move out of the property no later than 11:59 p.m. on March 12.

In other meeting business:

— Coleman made a proclamation in support of Fir Lawn Lutheran Church after it was devastated by an early morning fire three days earlier.

“The Sweet Home City Council stands in solidarity with the congregation, which has suffered the tragic loss of their place of worship,” she said. “We condemn this act of violence in the strongest possible terms and call on all members of our community to reject such reprehensible behavior and embrace peaceful dialogue and understanding.”

Much of the church was destroyed in the Saturday, Feb. 25, conflagration. Sweet Home firefighters who arrived on the scene that morning found the foyer area of the building fully engulfed.

Crews from Halsey, Brownsville and Albany assisted at the scene and brought the fire under control within an hour. However, Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District Battalion Chief Randy Whitfield estimated damage to the building at around $1 million.

“We urge law enforcement agencies to investigate and bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice,” Coleman said. “We call on all members of our community to offer any information they believe may assist in the investigation. … Violence in any form is an affront to human dignity and has no place in a civilized society.

“Places of worship are sanctuaries for individuals to connect with their faith, reflect and seek solace. The burning of a church is an abhorrent act of violence and undermines the values of respect, tolerance and mutual understanding that are essential for the peaceful coexistence of all people. We recognize the important role that religious institutions play in fostering community and promoting social cohesion, and pledge to work together to ensure that all places of worship are safe and secure for all who wish to gather and worship.”

She described how Fir Lawn was responsible for “a lot of good” in the community. For instance, she said, the building hosted Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and craft fairs. The congregation also raised funds to send children to summer camps and has helped students build boats to sail on Foster Lake.

“For a little congregation,” Coleman said, “they are mighty.”

Sweet Home Police Chief Jason Ogden said the investigation was ongoing.

“We’re working really hard and diligently to get any evidence that we can get to hopefully identify any suspect or suspects,” he said.

Ogden outlined an upward trend of crime in general, using statistics reported Jan. 31. The department’s call volume has experienced a 22.47% increase over last January’s numbers. Rises were reported in other areas, as well: computer-aided dispatch call volume, 31.48%; person crimes,12.50%; and property crimes, 37.14%. (However, the clearance rate on the latter two are up 18.18% and 47.37% from the same time last year, respectively.)

n The council conducted the first reading of an ordinance reestablishing a city traffic safety committee, which would serve as an advisory board to the council and make recommendations regarding parking and traffic safety.

— The council conducted the second reading of an ordinance that would add a section on mobile food units (MFUs) to the Sweet Home Municipal Code. City staff drafted the section following frequent MFU-installation requests and because of a lack of current city code to support them. Staff used Lebanon and Albany’s MFU codes as examples for Sweet Home’s.

The proposed section reads that MFU “pods,” or a group of two or more mobile food units on a parcel of land, would be considered permanent installations and require prior site plan approval, as well as lighting in areas occupied by customers.

All MFU and customer amenities within a pod would need a 5-foot-wide (at minimum) hard-surfaced, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant walkway. Waste and recycling receptacles would have to be provided.

Restrooms with hot and cold running water and nonportable toilets should be available on-site or on an adjacent parcel, with a signed agreement allowing for their use.

All MFUs would have to maintain a 6-foot minimum clearance from any other MFU or structure.

Electrical generators would need to be at least 10 feet from other structures, with any exhaust directed away. MFUs would have to remain operable and mobile, although their wheels could be removed if they were stored onsite.

An MFU could only operate within the city for no more than three days within any 30-day period without first obtaining a permit. However, one could operate sans permit within special events, such as a farmer’s market or public festival. In addition, an MFU in the public right-of-way would be exempt from needing a permit if parking regulations were followed and it didn’t block pedestrian or vehicle traffic.

After obtaining a permit, an MFU is limited to one year at a given site, with an unlimited number of one-year extensions that require new permits.

— The council conducted the third and final reading of an ordinance regarding the custody, towing and disposal of a recreational vehicle found in violation of a recently passed ordinance that placed restrictions on the parking of RVs on certain streets and alleys.

The ordinance treats such vehicles as abandoned, calling for notifications before towing by posting notices informing offenders of a vehicle’s possible fate and his or her rights to appeal.

The ordinance makes it so that an RV in violation of Sweet Home’s code could be taken into custody, towed and disposed of after 48 hours. Since this ordinance was passed with an expediency clause, it went into effect immediately after Coleman signed it.

n The council conducted a third and final reading of an ordinance that makes various updates to the Sweet Home Municipal Code.

Under the ordinance, a code section is updated to allow for the enforcement of open-storage restrictions. Currently, the city can impose them only on violations viewable from a public street. The update allows for open-storage enforcement in commercial and industrial areas, whereas it is currently limited to residences.

Additionally, the code’s open-burning section was clarified to make it clear that authorized individuals had the right to extinguish illegal open burning and that violators would bear the costs of such enforcement.

According to the current code, a structure’s glass window or door cannot be left broken for more than 48 hours if the glass is within six feet of its bottom. The update includes all windows and doors, not just those made of glass, and not just those at a structure’s bottom six feet.

A section is updated to allow the city to require the input of a licensed arborist for the abatement of dead, dangerous or diseased trees on private property.

Additionally, a section is updated to allow the city manager’s designee to enforce code provisions regarding domestic animals in parks. The current code allows only the city manager to enforce such provisions.

Finally, references to debris or junk property, currently seen in the code’s Nuisances Affecting Public Health section, are moved to a different section as they were deemed more pertinent to open storage.

— Coleman proclaimed April 15, 2023, as Arbor Day in the city.

“I urge all citizens to celebrate Arbor Day and to support efforts to protect our trees and woodlands,” she said. “I urge all citizens to plant trees to gladden the heart and promote the well-being of this and future generations.”