Sherman is planning an adjustment to its substandard structures ordinance that officials hope will expedite the demolition process in the city.
The Sherman City Council approved three ordinances last month that establishes a Municipal Court of Record, makes that court of record the authority for ordering abatement of substandard structures and appoints Holly Fox of Flower Mound as the alternate judge to the court of record. Following the hiring of a new staff member to be in charge of the program — Neighborhood Quality Coordinator Chip Matthews earlier this year — city staff expect the number of substandard structures needing to be ruled on by the council to increase.
“One way to avoid having extra long council meetings is to create this Court of Record that can hear those instead of you guys,” City Attorney Brandon Shelby said to the council. “So instead of having six (possible demolitions) in front of you a month, extending the council meetings by a couple hours each time, we’d have one day in court per month to hear these.”
The council did away with the city’s Substandard Structure Commission in 2016 in an effort to streamline and accelerate its efforts in dealing with dilapidated and dangerous buildings. Once staff exhausted all efforts to get properties brought back up to city standards, it was decided houses would be brought to the council so a demolition determination could be made. The council has considered such cases several times since taking over the process.
Assistant City Manager Steve Ayers said Matthews has been “straightening out records and preparing” for upcoming abatement cases since taking over the position.
“This is consistent with the priority of the council for the last several years, making improvements and cleaning up the city,” Ayers said of the move to expedite the demolition process in the city.
In addition to substandard structure cases, the alternate municipal judge will oversee environmental code violations during her one day of cases a month.
“Our current judge in the Municipal Court, Scott Smith, would still hear the things he’s hearing now — traffic cases, Class C misdemeanors,” Shelby said. “We’re asking to appoint an alternative judge to hear the substandard structure hearings and environmental code and we’re recommending for that position someone that’s not from here. We believe that would help politically in the substandard structure matters and she comes recommended by Chip Matthews, who is our staff person in charge of substandard structures.”
Shelby said Fox has overseen similar municipal courts for almost a decade and has worked with Matthews in two other communities.
“The judge that we’re looking to contract with, that’s what she’s done with other communities in North Texas,” Ayers said of Fox. “She specializes in this — she knows the law really well and has worked for other cities. We think that will definitely be a benefit.”
Community and Support Services Manager Nate Strauch said the nature of these kinds of questions raise specific legal questions.
“Because it does involve the government going in on private property and performing a remediation action, some of the legal questions that need to be wrestled with are really specific to these types of cases,” Strauch said. “So as we got to talking about the best way to put together a program to allow us to move more quickly and more efficiently, toward the top of our list is making sure we had somebody in place who was well versed in the legal specifics of these types of cases.”
After the initial changes to the program, Sherman demolished 22 substandard structures in 2016 and 47 structures in 2017. In June, the council approved the allocation of $100,000 for the substandard structure program from the Community Development Block Grant funds received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the needs of the city’s low- to moderate-income citizens. At that time, Ayers said he expected the program could grow to the point where the city demolished more 100 or more structures next year.
“We feel that that’s going to increase tremendously,” Ayers said of the demolitions, adding he feels the substandard structure program is really going to take off on Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins and the CDBG funds become available.
Council member Pam Howeth praised the municipal court changes as she said it shows citizens the council is taking steps to “beef up” code enforcement.
“A lot of times, we let it (code enforcement) lag behind,” Howeth said. “We are really taking steps on behalf of this city council to enforce those things and to also deal with substandard structures. We also know that a lot of times these substandard structures, the owners don’t even live here in Sherman. But I do think it’s important that the citizens know we take this very seriously. We are trying to make this a better city to live in.”