By Janelle Stecklein
Hawk Cove city leaders have been working hard recently to clean up the community that is home to about 750 Hunt County residents.
But, the city’s former mayor, Leetta Goolsby, said abandoned property that is sometimes in the county’s possession is making it harder to clean up.
“We can’t do anything with it until the county decides to put it on the auction block,” she explained, saying the city can’t afford to clean up the properties that are falling apart.
Part of the problem is the abandoned mobile homes that litter not just the community, but many parts of the county. Many of these mobile homes no longer have any windows; the metal on the outside has been stripped and sold for profit; and the trailers have pieces of insulation sticking out. Everything of value has been stolen.
“They’re in pretty bad shape,” Goolsby said.
Hawk Cove resident Michael Tacker lives next door to one of the structures and says he is interested in purchasing the land just so he can get rid of what he describes as an “eyesore.”
“All the walls are gone,” he said. And, he added, kids have broken out all the windows, and thieves have stolen everything of value.
According to property records listed on the Hunt County Appraisal District’s Web site, Hunt County and the local political entities have 100 percent ownership of both the property and the remaining structure.
Tacker says the property and the mobile home have been appraised for $8,000 and but for the price, he would gladly purchase the property.
“It’s not worth eight grand to me. I was just going to do this because it’s an eyesore to me,” he said.
Recently he said he even found a lady living in the structure, which he knows has been empty for at least 10 years since the previous owners died. He grew up in the mobile home before selling it.
“You could tell someone had been living there,” he said after discovering someone had added a couch, left beer cans and put a padlock on the door. He said he approached the woman and she told him she owned the property. Soon after, the woman moved out, he said.
But, the abandon structures are not just a Hawk Cove problem.
Hunt County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Deputy Rex Saxton said while they are more prominent in the south part of the county, they’re also starting to appear in the northern part as well.
“They’re pretty much everywhere,” he said. “They just sit on somebody’s yard like old abandoned cars.”
Saxton said it’s not uncommon to find people living in or using the structures.
“People go into the houses to use drugs. Kids find abandoned trailer houses and go inside them. They use it as their hang-outs. Even on one instance, they found a dead body in one of the (abandoned) houses.”
Patrol Deputy Jeremy Dickens agreed that the abandoned structures are located all over the county and said people will notice a trailer is abandoned and start stealing items.
“They’ll go in and take copper tubing and copper wiring,” he said. “And basically cost people a lot of money in case they were coming back later to pick the trailer up.”
He also said the properties tend to attract crime and squatters.
“People will shack up in them if they’re homeless. People will steal things out of them. People will stash stolen property in them. People will use them for ‘dope’ houses. They will all congregate in one house and do their narcotics, and then leave. The evidence is not at their house, so they don’t ever get caught with it,” he explained.
Both men said the properties make their jobs more difficult.
“We’re always taking reports on this property that has been abandoned and run down forever,” Dickens said. “But if it wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have these problems.”
Both men also said that it would be helpful if the county cracked down on abandoned properties and had a specific guide to go by.
“That would be great especially if all the different departments got together to figure out what they are going to do about it,” Saxton said.
Mike Pierce, the Hunt County Chief Environmental Enforcement officer, said his office would like to start enforcing and issuing citations for abandoned property, but currently there are no building codes or ordinances in place that make the structures illegal.
“There needs to be something done,” Pierce said. “We definitely need more planning and zoning commissions. We sure need to look at the future of the county.”
He questioned with the growth expected to hit the county during the next few years who would want to develop near the abandoned structures.
“There’s got to be certain restrictions and guidelines,” he said. “We’ve got to have something to work off of. We’ve got to have something to enforce.”
According to documentation provided by Hunt County, the county only has two building codes or ordinances in place. The first has to do with automotive wrecking and salvage yard regulations, while the second has to do with sexually oriented businesses.
Pierce said it is frustrating not to be able to enforce the abandoned structures and said it will take a combined effort of all the county’s entities — including the Commissioners Court — to address the situation.
Should the county step in to cleanup or regulate these structures?
County officials say they have no plans or the authority to pass legislation that would regulate the structures found in unincorporated areas.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Kenneth Thornton said he has not received any calls complaining about the structures and is not aware of a problem with them.
He said the biggest complaint he receives is about abandoned trucks and cars as well as people disposing of trash — calls which are turned over the county’s environmental enforcement office.
“The county does not have regulating authority in unincorporated areas,” he said. “We cannot pass an ordinance to keep you from doing something in your yard that is not in violation of a state regulation. Our hands are somewhat tied in that aspect of it.”
He said, however, that subdivisions can put deed restrictions in place that would limit such structures, but said that the county cannot enforce deed restrictions.
“I think our environmental enforcement officers are doing a good job working with what tools they have,” Thornton said.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Ralph Green said he is not aware of any such structures in his precinct and said he is not sure the county could regulate them even if it wanted to.
“I’m not sure we have the authority to regulate structures like that,” he said. “We can only do what the state gives us authority to do.”
A representative with County Attorney Joel Littlefield’s office, calling on his behalf, said Littlefield is not the person who could answer whether the county could legally pass codes or legislation to regulate the structures. The representative did not know who could answer the question.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Phillip Martin said the county does not need any more laws or legislation passed, but instead should work with laws that are already on the books.
“We have so many laws that it is a shame we have them,” Martin said. “You need to use the ones you have.”
Martin said the county cannot legally clean up properties because it would be illegal to trespass on the property. And even if the county could clean up the properties, Martin said county officials can’t tell others how to live.
“The county is not in the real estate business,” Martin said. “We can’t legislate caring for others. You can’t legislate pride.”
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jim Latham said he does receive calls about the structures, but there is not a whole lot he can do about them because as long as they are a certain distance from the road they are legal.
“I consider them a hassle,” he said. “(But) we don’t have regulations on them like we have in the inside municipalities. We can’t provide services like you have inside a city.”
He said if the county were to pass legislation regulating the structures, it would have to step in and start regulating other things as well and providing other services.
“We would be more like a city,” he said. “We just let people police themselves.”
County Judge John Horn said regulating the structures would be hard a job.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “You can’t tell people how to live.”
Also, he said the county is limited to what it can regulate because it does not operate like a city does.
“(Other than the codes we’ve already passed, the county) is very, very limited as to the types of restrictions you can impose,” Horn said.
He said there are four things to consider when looking at an abandoned structure. He said to look at if the structure creates a health and safety issue, an environmental issue or an aesthetic issue and the reason why a trailer has been abandoned.
And, if the neighbors don’t like the look of a property, Horn said it is unfair to ask Hunt County taxpayers to foot the cleanup bill.
“I don’t think it would be fair to the taxpayers or for us, as the governing body, to say that a person who lives in Commerce has to contribute to the cleanup of some place somewhere else.”
He said county officials must also consider that the county has already lost revenue on the repossessed structures.
However, he does not deny the structures create a problem.
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that it is (a problem),” Horn said. “I’ve seen it. I know it’s there. But how to effectively eliminate it, I don’t know.”
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