Vacant building 'taken over'; neighbors air complaints

2013-07-08T20:23:00Z 2013-07-10T15:40:04Z Vacant building 'taken over'; neighbors air complaintsBy ED KEMMICK The Billings Gazette

Neighbors of a building on Grand Avenue that has been in legal limbo for years say the property has become a haven for transients.

In an email sent to the City Council on Monday, Kelly Sanders and Mark Ehli, the owners of Big B Bingo at 1307 12th St. W., complained that a vacant building just north of their business, at 1146 Grand Ave., has been "taken over" by transients and is "a problem for the entire neighborhood."

They said the transients are usually intoxicated, harass customers for money and cigarettes, pass out in the Big B parking lot and have sometimes used the restroom of another nearby business to bathe in.

Sanders and Ehli included a photograph showing several people sleeping on a salvaged sofa and mattress amid graffiti-covered walls. 

They said they understood that the city owned the property, and they asked that something be done to protect their customers and employees.

The question of ownership, however, is less than clear.

When the city acquired land along Grand Avenue for a widening project that began in 2007, four property owners rejected the city's offer of the appraised value of the property plus 5 percent.

The city eventually settled with everyone but Merle Johns, who owned -- or still owns, perhaps -- the property at 1146 Grand Ave.

In an email to City Administrator Tina Volek and several other city officials, Deputy City Attorney Kelly Addy said legal title to the property still lies with Johns' company, JPL, and the city only obtained "right of entry" authority during condemnation proceedings.

That authority was granted only to allow the city to complete the road-widening project, Addy said. A chain of events, including the death of Johns' original attorney, dragged out the proceedings, he said, but both sides are seeking to have a valuation hearing in court.

Addy said appraisers told the city the property was worth $200,000, but JPL filed a claim in 2007 saying it was worth $610,000.

In the email, Addy said "there is no case law in Montana providing guidance on who has the power and responsibility for the condition of the property prior to the valuation hearing."

"With the control of the property in limbo," Addy continued, "the City has been hesitant to act. ... The property is still the best evidence of value in the case and doing anything dramatic may affect the appearance of the evidence."

Johns, for his part, said he no longer owns the property.

"They went to court all right, and the court gave them the building and the property," he said. "The only problem is, they haven't paid me yet."

Johns said he tried years ago to secure the building, but transients "just kicked the whole door in." He said the city is now responsible for cleaning up the mess.

"They're just trying to pass this whole thing off to me," he said. Johns' current lawyer, Kelly Varnes, could not be reached for comment.

When a Gazette reporter and photographer went to look at the property Monday afternoon, Ward 3 City Councilman Rich McFadden was already there. He said he ran into Sanders, the Big B owner, on Saturday and heard about the problems with the building.

He advised him to write to the whole council in hopes of spurring some action. Having read the email Sanders and Ehli sent Monday, McFadden decided to check the situation out himself after getting off work at Van's Evergreen grocery store, a block away.

McFadden said he was mainly interested in ensuring people's safety.

"I'd hate to see anyone from Big B Bingo get hurt," he said.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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