Marinel Baker of First United Methodist Church on West Main Street walks through an abandoned funeral home that is attracting transients to the church's doorstep. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta

Derelicts in the crosshairs

Over the past 12 years, Marinel Baker has seen a marked uptick in "disgusting" behavior outside First United Methodist Church on West Main Street in Medford.

"We have volunteers clean human waste on our front porch," she said.

Baker, the information liaison for the church, said bad behavior among transients who defecate in the bushes or on the front porch has greatly increased in the past two years, creating a security problem and health hazard with drug paraphernalia strewn about.

She pleaded with the Medford City Council Thursday to do something about a vacant property next door that used to be a funeral parlor and now attracts transients who scrawl graffiti on the building and appear to use it as a place to spend the night.

The council did unanimously approve an ordinance that will put some teeth into the city's ability to go after boarded-up properties in Medford, which have become neighborhood nuisances, including fire hazards.

Unfortunately for the church, the ability of the city to foreclose on abandoned properties applies only to residential units, not the commercial building that sits next to the church.

Baker said the church has had to install different lighting that can't be easily broken, and it contends with cigarette butts, garbage, vomit and other things that are cleaned up by volunteers. 

"It's disgusting," she said, adding that she regularly finds someone sleeping on the front porch. The church is also concerned that transients flick their cigarette butts on the carpeted porch, creating a fire hazard.

Baker told the council she would encourage the city to take some kind of action that would help her church and possibly do something about the former funeral parlor that she said is owned by a bank.

The city's new ordinance would allow it to foreclose on residential properties that have been boarded up for more than six months. Many houses in Medford have been boarded up for years.

"Derelict structures will no longer be allowed in the city of Medford," said Kevin McConnell, deputy city attorney. "The citizens of Medford will really see a difference in how the city looks."

McConnell said other cities in Oregon are looking to Medford to see how it implements the little-known state law called the Oregon Housing Receivership Act.

Even though foreclosure is the hammer, the city expects that most banks and lending institutions will react quickly once the city starts a receivership process.

McConnell said it will force owners to fix houses and put them on the market. If the city takes ownership, the remodeled houses could add to the affordable housing stock, McConnell said.

In 2014, the city identified 436 mostly bank-owned vacant houses that attracted vagrants and drug users and created a nuisance for neighbors. A more recent count indicates that some 50 houses might be boarded up in the city.

In the next couple of weeks, the city will compile a list of boarded-up properties and send letters to the owners to fix the problems.

A different ordinance adopted by the council Thursday gives property owners six months to fix up boarded-up houses or houses that have fallen into general disrepair.

Sam Barnum, city building director, said the foreclosure ordinance wouldn't apply to commercial properties, but he said the council did give extra legal tools to go after both derelict commercial and residential structures.

Essentially, the city would send out code enforcement to inspect and then to cite commercial property owners, Barnum said.

Baker said she would be contacting the police to report bad behavior on her property, though she was disappointed the new ordinance doesn't apply to commercial buildings.

While the council generally applauded the new ordinances, some were concerned that abandoned property owners would get a longer period of time to deal with boarded-up houses.

"I'm disappointed we'll have to wait another six months to get something done," Councilor Dick Gordon said. "These vacant, boarded-up houses are really affecting our neighborhoods."

Councilor Kevin Stine said he also was concerned that more time is going to elapse before these properties are cleaned up, especially because the council has been discussing the problem for some time.

"We could have had this passed many months ago," he said.

The council hit a roadblock earlier this year when banks complained about the definition of "property owner" in the ordinance. That concern has been ironed out.

Councilor Daniel Bunn said the council has certainly taken its time, and the ordinance isn't perfect.

"We're 75 percent of the way there," he said.

Councilor Michael Zarosinski said a lot of work went into the ordinance before it could be voted on by the council.

"I have no issue with how long it's taken to get it right," he said.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or Follow him on

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