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Published: Monday, 7/21/2003

City to go after property scofflaws

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

From an immaculately painted deck overlooking pretty petunias, a barbecue grill, and a perfectly trimmed back yard, it's summer breezes that the Williams family dreads.

That's when the stench is the worst.

“It's awful,” Wendell Williams said of the piles of dog waste next door, where the weeds have grown higher than the seven-foot high privacy fence. The dilapidated house next door at 25 East Hudson St. is falling apart and crumbling to the ground.

“The stink gets in the air,” Mr. Williams said, “and it's like it coats your throat and strangles you.”

A new effort this week in Toledo Municipal Court has officials hoping that chances may increase that the Williams family will find relief.

The advertisements will list 927 addresses where the property owners have failed to appear in court on a variety of housing complaints - from debris and abandoned vehicles, to crumbling structures and overgrown weeds.

Since he took his seat in 2000, Judge McConnell said he has been frustrated repeatedly by those who simply ignore the housing citations issued by the city.

“My ability to do anything is limited when I don't have a warm body in front of me,” he said. “If I have no [defendant], the case doesn't go anywhere.”

Only in the most extreme cases can the judge order the city to demolish a structure, but doing so can destroy habitable housing stock. It's also a complex process.

“This is America, and even the bad guys have rights,” noted Rick Thielen, Toledo's manager of code enforcement. “You can't just go in and take someone's property from them.”

Mr. Thielen's 10 inspectors hit the streets each day as the city's first line of defense against blight. Though they're chased by dogs, threatened, and cursed at, it's debatable how effective they really are when an owner simply doesn't respond.

Case in point: the Williams' neighbor.

From 1992 to spring, 2002, inspectors from the city's neighborhoods department visited the house about a dozen times, each time finding a problem with dog waste and often with other debris.

During one visit in 1992, an inspector made a short notation that the owner had complied with the order to clean. It didn't last.

The next year, another neighbor complained to the city of several vicious dogs in the house, including one that “jumped high enough above the fence to grab the back of [his daughter's] coat.” Two anonymous callers complained later, and an inspector in 1997 posted a large sign on the house ordering the owner to remove animal waste twice a day.

Finally, last summer, an inspector filed criminal charges against William L. Soldner of Drouillard Road, Walbridge, whom public records list as the owner of the house since 1958.

When Mr. Soldner failed to appear in court in October for his case, Judge McConnell signed a warrant for his arrest.

Last week, a Blade reporter found no one at the East Hudson house.

Dennis Soldner said his father, 78, has been unable to maintain the place after having moved away years ago.

Dennis Soldner, 49, said he is able to go to the Hudson home once a day to feed and water the dogs and let them out, but two bouts with cancer have left him too weak to care for the yard or pick up after the dogs.

As for the bench warrant for his father, he called it unfair, noting that he is unemployed, sick, and no longer living at the address. He also said that he'd thought a family member had gone to court for his father and resolved the case.

“The dogs are well taken care of,” Dennis Soldner said. “It's harassment, that's what it is.”

In the meantime, Mr. Williams said he, his wife, Atanya, and his three girls are driven inside on warm days while the weeds continue to grow, paint continues to peel, and the roof continues to disintegrate. And the dispute between Dennis Soldner and Mr. Williams has even turned violent in one case.

Mr. Soldner claims Mr. Williams tried to run him over with his van, and in fact, Mr. Williams received probation for a felonious assault conviction in the case.

Mr. Williams counters that Mr. Soldner threw a brick at him while he was driving and threw himself onto the van.

Theirs certainly isn't a lonely case.

Housing court's caseload has swelled from 858 criminal cases in 1987 to 3,978 cases last year. By late last week, this year's caseload numbered 1,989, said Gwen Wyse, senior housing specialist.

Of those, there are 1,653 cases that stalled because the defendants simply don't show up in court.

“It's frustrating for the neighbors,” Mr. Thielen said. “They don't see any results because it's as far as it can go in the system.”

To reduce those numbers, the court has begun warrant sweeps but the paperwork to do so is time-consuming and tedious, police have other priorities, and the success is mixed, Judge McConnell said.

The court also has set up a grant program for those who qualify because of low or no income, allowing residents to use up to $4,500 of the city's money to fix their homes. A dry-erase board in the inspectors' office lists the 22 addresses whose owners have used the program.

The judge hopes the advertisements this month will let people know - or remind them - that they have cases pending in court, or prompt neighbors to call police if they know an owner has a warrant.

True, the judge acknowledged, most of those people will show up in court and get released with a promise that they'll begin working with the city.

But for those tenaciously uncooperative defendants, there's always jail time, the judge said.

“I'll use it,” he vowed, “if I need it.”



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