Friday, November 29, 2013

FOIA Friday: Dangerous buildings and demolition permits

FOIA Friday is a weekly column by Edward Vielmetti that looks at local government and public records. This week I am looking at the long, slow, drawn-out process whereby the City of Ann Arbor can demolish a building if the owners don't keep it in a safe condition.

Dangerous buildings ordinance and the City code

The City of Ann Arbor has a Dangerous Buildings Ordinance, which defines a Dangerous Building. There are many reasons that a building might be considered dangerous; this is one of them:
7. A building or structure is damaged by fire, wind, or flood, or is dilapidated or deteriorated and becomes an attractive nuisance to children who might play in the building or structure to their danger, becomes a harbor for vagrants, criminals or immoral persons, or enables persons to resort to the building or structure for committing a nuisance or an unlawful or immoral act.
The full ordinances of the City of Ann Arbor are available through Municode, if you want to sift through them yourself. There's no FOIA necessary to get copies of local laws, but you also won't find them just by doing a Google search, as the Municode site is search engine pessimized. (You can search on site.)

The city also keeps a Dangerous Buildings list, but you won't find that online. I've sent in a FOIA request to see if I can come up with a list of properties that the building department maintains of properties that they are watching. There's a similar Nuisance Properties list of addresses that the city has that attract undue attention for nuisances; I'm hopeful that my FOIA unearths that list as well.

Building Board of Appeals

From time to time, buildings on the Dangerous Buildings List come in front of the Building Board of Appeals, and the BBA holds a hearing to take commentary from interested parties.

This group is one of the slowest in the whole city to publish minutes. Back in 2012, I asked for (and received) minutes from the group from 2010 via FOIA. A few weeks ago, I asked again via FOIA, and got minutes from the beginning of this year sent to me, but they haven't been put onto any of the city's web sites yet. You can see 2013 Building Board of Appeals minutes from January, February, and March on a2docs.

The next meeting of the Building Board of Appeals is Thursday, 17 December 2013 from 9:30–11:30 a.m. on the second floor, Council chambers, City Hall. The board is expected to address a number of derelict and decrepit buildings that may be recommended for demolition. Demolition proceedings require an exceedingly large number of permits to fulfill completely, so there's a long paper trail and a lot of opportunity for the process to be slow.

eTrakit and permits

The fastest way to find out more about demolition permits is to skip the FOIA process and look in the city's own eTrakit system. This system keeps track of building permits, plumbing permits, noise permits, and even block party permits - nearly everything that goes through the city permit process.

To search for demolition permits, go to, select "permits", and then search for permits from this year starting with "DEMO13". You'll see a list of parcels where the owner has applied to demolish a structure. The results will not give you the whole permit, just the address and contact information but not a scanned in copy of the permit itself. Once you have the permit number it's possible to send in a FOIA for an exact document that should be findable quickly.

Want to crash a block party? Find out when the parties are happening with a search through permits for ones that begin with BLCK. April through October are prime block party months. The online system gives you enough details to know what day the party will be and when.

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