City declares burned building a 'public nuisance'

Structure must be repaired or demolished by Nov. 19

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2004

The owner of an uninsured 108-year-old building that burned Sunday at Front and Seward streets will have to fix or remove the hazard quickly, City Manager Rod Swope said Thursday.

A letter declaring the building a "public nuisance," hand-delivered to owner Tom Huntington, demands he provide the city with a plan by the end of the business day Monday to repair or demolish the building. It also requires repairs or demolition to correct the problems by Nov. 19.

The letter states in capital letters that the building has been posted as a "dangerous building." Signed by acting building official Stephen Shows, it also requires Huntington to take out a building permit by the end of next week to complete the necessary work.

Constructed in 1896, the building burned Sunday, pouring thick black smoke into the neighborhood. Witnesses told the Empire two young men were working with tar paper and a propane torch on an overhang at the top of the first floor.

Swope said he has confirmed Huntington didn't have insurance on the building. He understands the building was valued at $1 million.

Still, he said making the corner safe will be Huntington's responsibility.

A call to Huntington's home for comment Thursday night was not immediately returned. Earlier in the week, he said the fact that the ground floor wasn't being taken down in the initial cleanup should be a clue to his future plans for the building.

Juneau Fire Marshal Rich Etheridge said Thursday he was still calculating the cost of the blaze in a building that housed 17 businesses. The cost will have to include the overtime costs the city expended in fighting it, he noted.

He said a preliminary report is due out today, although the investigation will continue for a couple of weeks.

Etheridge said the investigation hasn't pointed to any possible criminal charges. The fire doesn't appear to have been set intentionally, and there doesn't seem to have been any insurance fraud or criminally negligent burning involved.

Thursday he still was looking for the two men who were working on the roof to interview them, he said. City records show no contractor for the work.

Shows' letter notifies Huntington that the city may initiate legal action if he does not meet the deadlines outlined in the letter. Shows said Thursday he did not believe it would be appropriate to discuss what sort of action the city could take.

City Attorney John Hartle said it is the owner's responsibility to fix the problems. "We're trying to work with him. He's had a tragedy."

At the same time, city officials have to be concerned with the rest of the community, he added. "The idea behind all these codes is to protect the public."

Hartle said that if problems aren't corrected, fines are possible. Condemning the building would be a last resort, and it would require a long process, he said.

City Community Development Director Dale Pernulla said the city will be trying to get the streets clear for public use.

"We realize he's got a disaster there, and we've got to work with him." But, he added, "we need to keep the streets open."

Downtown streets today should be mostly free of barricades that had been put up to divert traffic from the fire and its initial cleanup, Swope said. Today, only the lower part of Seward Street and Shattuck Way, the alley on the other side of the building, were expected to be blocked. The sidewalk in front of the burned building also would remain closed.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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