KNOXVILLE—More than three years after they were declared “unfit,” four dilapidated Applewood Apartment buildings have still not been vacated, an attorney said Thursday.
The Anderson County Chancery Court and the Tennessee Court of Appeals have both affirmed a November 2010 decision by an Oak Ridge board declaring the dilapidated buildings on Hunter Circle to be unfit for human occupation and use—and calling for them to be vacated immediately, attorney Dan Pilkington said.
The 2010 decision was reaffirmed by the city board, the Oak Ridge Board of Building and Housing Code Appeals, in March 2013, Pilkington said.
“We believe that this order is final,” he said in a 15-minute oral argument before a three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Knoxville on Thursday. “Despite that, the buildings have never been vacated.”
The 2010 Oak Ridge board hearing was held after notices were issued citing multiple deficiencies that were hazardous to tenants, said Pilkington, who works for Knoxville law firm Watson, Roach, Batson, Rowell, and Lauderback. That company represented the City of Oak Ridge in Thursday’s oral argument before a three-judge panel that included John W. McClarty, D. Michael Swiney, and D. Kelly Thomas Jr.
Pilkington accused Knoxville attorney Joe Levitt, who owns the Applewood Apartments, of trying to slow down the case in his second lawsuit.
“It’s just another example of plaintiff doing everything in his power to delay vacating these buildings,” Pilkington said. “He is attempting to re-litigate.”
In the meantime, Levitt, who represented himself in oral arguments on Thursday, continues to collect rent and profit at Applewood, Pilkington said.
“The buildings have to be vacated,” Pilkington said. “They’re unfit.”
But in his oral argument, Levitt said he’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Applewood Apartments.
He alleged that the city stalled for more than four years. Levitt seemed to be referring to an argument that he’s made repeatedly that the city had planned to acquire the properties in 2004 but abandoned that plan a few years later, in 2008.
Levitt said Applewood Apartments has not had a “quibble or problem” with Oak Ridge codes enforcement, and he responded to the charge that he is trying to stall or delay.
“We’re just trying to simply get the appropriate hearing on the conditions of these buildings,” Levitt said.
He objected to how the March 2013 hearing was conducted, alleging improper notices, arguing that the board declined to hear a repair summary by a licensed architect, and claiming that the city did not then know the current conditions of the buildings.
“At that last hearing, they did not follow through on what they said they were going to do,” Levitt said.
Pilkington said there would be a second, separate hearing on the condition of the four buildings to determine whether they ought to be demolished. But the city hasn’t been able to have that second hearing, during which evidence could be presented, because of a stay put in place when Levitt filed his second lawsuit, Pilkington said.
In his oral argument, Levitt said there is a question of whether his case against the city should have been dismissed without the filing of a transcript from the board hearing.
Pilkington said the city thinks it ought to be awarded damages based on Levitt’s filing of a “frivolous appeal.”
The Oak Ridge Board of Building and Housing Code Appeals had ordered the four Applewood buildings demolished on Nov. 11, 2010. The order was upheld by the Anderson County Chancery Court, but Levitt appealed.
In a three-judge opinion filed Oct. 30, 2012, the Tennessee Court of Appeals said the board “acted without material evidence to support its decision to demolish the buildings.”
The appellate court said the board may only order demolitions when repair costs exceed 50 percent of property values. However, no evidence was presented at the 2010 Applewood hearing about the original condition or value of the buildings, or the repair costs, the court said.
At the time, Oak Ridge City Attorney Ken Krushenski said that the city had won on all other issues. The other issues reviewed by the court ranged from the constitutionality of administrative warrants used to inspect Applewood buildings to the alleged bias of board member Joseph Lee.
“As far as we’re concerned, everything else is over with,” Krushenski said.
The case was sent back to the Oak Ridge Board of Building and Housing Code Appeals in the March 2013 hearing. After the board reaffirmed its “unfit” decision, the city staff posted yellow “Danger” signs on roughly 48 units at the four buildings at 105 and 115 East Hunter Circle, and 119 and 121 West Hunter Circle. The signs said the apartments had been deemed unfit for human occupation or use. The notices were not supposed to be removed until the structures were repaired or demolished.
Items alleged to be in need of repair then ranged from main girder beams, floor joists, and open electrical boxes to plumbing leaks, broken windows, and mold-like deposits, according to a list presented during the March 2013 hearing of the Board of Building and Housing Code Appeals. The items were identified a few years ago by Corum Engineering of Knoxville.
Levitt disagreed then that the apartments were dangerous.
“The buildings are in satisfactory engineering and architectural condition,” he said. “There’s no question about that.”
Levitt said he doesn’t rent out any units at the 13-building complex that are not safe and in good condition.
During the March 2013 hearing, Knoxville architect Jim Odle submitted a list of repairs that he said had been made to the four buildings, including replacing or repairing beams, piers, floor joists, and plumbing leaks, and removing trash from basements. It was “evidence the property is no longer unfit for human occupation and use,” Odle said.
There was debate over whether he would or should certify with his seal that the repairs, which allegedly corrected violations found in inspections in May 2009, had resolved life, safety, and health issues at the four buildings.
“I can attest to what I saw, but that is the extent of it,” Odle said. “It’s a professional opinion, based on my observations.”
City officials said that wasn’t enough. Among other things, they pointed out that pictures presented by Applewood representatives during the March 2013 hearing weren’t labeled with identifying information, such as time and location. They said it is now Levitt’s responsibility to show he is in compliance with city codes, and he should bring forward a professional who is licensed in the field and can present documentation that repairs have been made to items identified in the Corum report that could affect life, health, and safety.
Levitt said Oak Ridge officials are refusing to hear what repairs have taken place during the past four years.
There was no discussion during the oral arguments on Thursday about what repairs might have been made since March 2013.
The city has fought a code enforcement battle against the 13-building apartment complex on Hillside Road and Hunter Circle for several years. City officials say they want the buildings repaired, while Levitt says he has made repairs.
It’s not clear when the three-judge panel could issue an opinion in the case. There is no deadline to do so.