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Fallen buildings raise questions

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

As older buildings in western Kentucky continue to fall down, questions begin to pop up.

Under Kentucky codes, it's the responsibility of property owners to keep their walls from tumbling down, and city governments say there's not much they can do to prevent building collapses. This has left some residents feeling exposed.

"I'm looking at a couple of buildings next to me that are not occupied, and what do I do? Somebody should have some responsibility somewhere to protect those of us who are taking care of these buildings, and I don't know who it would be other than the city government," said Jill Celaya, owner of Wells Studio near Mayfield's court square.

Celaya runs her photography studio out of a building constructed in 1890. She started working on the two-story, 10,000-square-foot structure in 2006, around the time a number of buildings in Mayfield collapsed. Although she purchased the building in decent condition, rehabilitation was costly, and fending off water damage is still a challenge. She believes these difficulties may contribute to property owners' struggles to maintain their buildings.

"It's just really hard to keep those things in good shape," she said.

Murray's Court Square provides the most recent testament to that. A partial roof collapse on South Fourth Street on March 29 followed a larger-scale building collapse on Feb. 22. Neither resulted in injuries, but they've obstructed foot and motor traffic and temporarily displaced businesses. Both structures were built in the early 1900s, city administrator Matt Mattingly said.

The collapses have prompted city officials to act. A meeting of the city's public safety committee is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday in the City Council chambers, Mattingly said.

"We plan to talk to our city council about our current process and procedures, how we handle it internally, and see if they would like to expand those," he said.

The City of Murray only inspects buildings when they are being constructed or remodeled, or when someone lodges a formal complaint. Commercial, residential and industrial buildings aren't subject to periodic inspection for structural issues, Mattingly said.

This is standard procedure for other cities in the region. Under the 2013 Kentucky Building Code, the owner's designated agent is responsible for maintaining existing buildings. City officials say owners can contact them with concerns about their buildings, but voluntary requests for inspections are rare. If the building appears to be in decent condition and no one complains, structural issues may go unnoticed until it's too late - especially if the building stands unoccupied.

"Usually when a building's vacant, you're just looking to maintain the integrity of the building. You've got to know there's a problem with a building (to inspect it)," Paducah Fire Chief Steve Kyle said.

He said Paducah addresses issues with existing structures through a property maintenance program and its fire code. But residential structures rank higher on the priority list than commercial ones.

"Where people sleep, where people gather, that's a larger priority, so that keeps fire code inspectors busier a lot of the time," he said.

Mayfield Building Inspector Nathan Lamb agreed that when it comes to commercial properties, inspections are usually the result of a complaint. He added that fire code inspectors have a few structural items on their checklists, and if they see that something's amiss, they may bring it to the attention of the buildings department.

City governments say there's no easy fix when property owners won't or can't maintain their buildings.

The city can go through a sometimes lengthy process of foreclosure, Kyle said, but that doesn't solve the whole problem.

"At the end of the day, what's the city going to do once they get it (the building)? Is it the city's responsibility to stabilize it, to tear it down? What are the expectations from the community?" he said.

"We have a demolition budget. We spend it all every year, and we still have a lot of structures that need to be torn down, that are not safe. ... One big commercial structure would wipe out the entire budget," he added.

Paducah has tried to provide incentives to some property owners through its Roof Stabilization Assistance Program, which provides financial help to qualified property owners within Paducah's historic downtown district. The program came under discussion after the Kresge building on Broadway suffered a partial roof collapse last June.

Celaya added that Mayfield's Main Street program has proven useful in keeping the downtown district healthy, but those hoping to restore and preserve historic buildings need to take a realistic view of the costs involved.

"You can't replace a (historic) court square like we had in Mayfield," she said, "but it's got to make business sense, too. That's a really, really tough line to get across."

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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