Main Street eyesores have Ephraim City leaders looking for solutions
By Suzanne Dean
EPHRAIM—By all appearances, and based on statistics, Ephraim is growing, flourishing and becoming the dominant community in Sanpete County.
But in the eyes of many residents, some of whom have complained vocally and some of whom have kept silent, there’s one scar that puts the town to shame. It’s the Main Street.
“It’s the gateway to our community,” City Manager Brant Hanson says. Yet the majority of complaints the city receives about ill-kempt properties are about properties on Main Street.
Recently, Hanson drove through Moroni with his visiting father-in-law. “Moroni’s Main Street looks so much nicer than yours,” his father-in-law said.
But reversing blight that has infected perhaps 10 percent of the properties on the street between Walmart and McDonald’s is not simple.
Options range from simple code enforcement, to code enforcement combined with an effort to preserve designated historic structures, to full-scale redevelopment, which could involve the city purchasing blighted properties and reselling them with the requirement they be rehabilitated.
“It’s a very complicated decision,” Hanson says. “You’ve got a lot of moving parts.”
In the final analysis, it’s a political decision, he says. “It’s the council who have to make the decision.”
At the next meeting, on Sept. 7 at 6 p.m., the council will take up the question of what to do about Main Street. The focus of the initial discussion will be code enforcement. The public will have an opportunity to speak.
The problems on Main Street range from the old motel with near the north end of town that has been vacant for more than a decade, to a half dozen vacant houses (all pre-1940s), to cars parked in front yards, to yards and curb strips that aren’t maintained.
The motels at <address>, formerly the <Travel Inn>, is pretty clearly the stand-out in terms of blight. Doors and windows of the structure are missing. The property is covered with weeds.
The city council has been actively discussing the property for at least five years. At a council meeting a couple of months ago, Police Chief Ron Rasmussen, who is the city’s code enforcement officer, said, “It’s coming down.” But nothing’s happened.
“We’re in constant communication with the owner on two fronts,” Hanson says. “Our goal as a city (is) to see it demolished.” If the owner is unwilling to raze the structure, the city wants him to at least board up the building.
If the city could prove the building was structurally unsound, it could condemn it. The city itself could tear it down and send the owner the bill.
But the city would have to front the demolition costs, which could run $100,000. “That’s a lot to ask in our budget,” Hanson says.
The most visible blighted houses include two historic structures on the west side of the street immediately north of the new Sinclair convenience store.
One has a sign in the window that says “Notice of Trustee Sale.” Both have knee-high weeds in the front yards.
Across the street, Cache Valley Bank is beginning restoration of the Canute Peterson House, a process a bank official says will take up to five years.
Next door is another house built by Canute Peterson, one of the founders of Snow College and the first president of the Sanpete LDS Stake. It is sometimes referred to as the “second wife’s house.”
Although the structure itself is in decent condition, it is now vacant and weeds are taking over the front lawn.
Continuing down the street, immediately south of the well kept Leavitt Insurance building, are two vacant houses. One is a 1930s-era bungalow that has been vacant, with remnants of curtains still hanging at the front windows, for at least 15 years.
Hanson said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told him recently that one of the governor’s grandparents once lived in the house. Apparently, the house got tied up in estate matters and after that just sat.
Next door to the “Herbert house” is a potential historic gem, an oolite stone structure with extensive decorative wood trim. The owner, <?> Deakin, died <?>. The house is vacant and it’s future uncertain.
And so it goes on Main Street.
In the past, Hanson says, there’s been some hesitancy to enforce city building and nuisance codes. He’s heard stories that police officers assigned to code enforcement have been “told to back off.”
No longer, he vows. “Our council now wants people to follow the rules.”
The city has always had a policy of working with owners and residents, and giving them time to correct problems. But if people don’t respond when asked nicely, “We’ll cite you and you can work through the courts.”
If a city has an ordinance on the books, it should enforce it, Hanson says, not selectively enforce some ordinances and ignore others.
“If you don’t correct behavior, you’re condoning the behavior. People start pushing the limits, and that’s unacceptable.”
The focus of the Sept. 7 discussion will be getting direction from the council, and possibly the public, on how to carry out more vigorous code enforcement.
Some cities that have many historic buildings pass a historic preservation ordinance. A process is established for designating buildings as historic. After that, no designated buildings can be torn down or significantly altered without approval from the commission.
Such an ordinance is a possibility in Ephraim, Hanson says. Initially, he foresees city historic buildings, such as the Ephraim Co-op and the Granary Arts Center, receiving the historic designation. Private structure could be designated if the owner voluntarily agreed.
The furthest reaching potential strategy, which would also be the costliest and most risky, would be setting up a Redevelopment Agency (RDA) and designating Main Street as a redevelopment area.
Hanson has visited Bothell, Washington, where the city bought up most of the property on its Main Street and redeveloped it. “They went into debt, but it was debt they could handle,” he says.
RDAs require staffing and management, he says. They are subject to a host of state and some federal regulations.
“Cities are doing it, but it requires a significant investment. The city is taking a risk on whether it will come out whole (financially). That’s not to say we wouldn’t do it.”