Vacant Buildings: More Than an Eyesore
Last week’s “catastrophic” fire at a large Middletown building further illustrated the need for code enforcement concerning vacant buildings that become community eyesores, officials said.
The large fire was reported at 6:40 a.m. on Wednesday at the former Middletown Paperboard complex at 300 S. Verity Parkway. More than 100 firefighters at a time battled the blaze, which led to the arrest of a man, Joshua Lamb, who said he was living in the building when a fire he started spread to his bedding.
As of Friday afternoon, Middletown firefighters remained on the scene putting out hotspots as crews from Vickers Demolition used heavy equipment to knock down walls and move debris.
Shelby Quinlivan, a city spokeswoman said South Verity Parkway/Ohio 4 between Girard Avenue and Yankee Road was closed to through traffic because of the damaged buildings and debris as well as two smokestacks at the south end of the facility that will need to come down to protect public safety.
Middletown firefighters have remained on the scene watching for floating embers going on to nearby residential and commercial properties since New Year’s Day. The smoldering embers were buried in pockets inside the double roof, burning into the old wooden beams. As demolition crews worked, moving the debris and removing the scrap metal left in the building, walls were being knocked down revealing more hotspots.
Previous media accounts and “The Pointe,” MidPointe Library’s official blog, said the Middletown Paperboard facility, which consists of 61 parcels, had between 400,000 and 600,000 square feet of space on the 11-acre site.
The original paper mill dated back to 1827 when it started on Vanderveer Street to make boxboard from recycled paper, according to “Middletown - The Steel City” by Middletown Historians Roger L. Miller and the late George C. Crout. In 1873, “C.H. Wardlow and J.K. Thomas built a new paper mill on the site, producing manila and bag paper,” they wrote.
Crout and Miller wrote the site also served as headquarters for Corson Packaging, which “started as the Interstate Folding Box Company at 300 South Verity Parkway in the early 1900s … In 1981 it was acquired by American Packaging, and in 1993, by Corson Packaging. (The company) was known for its folding paperboard cartons. Corson closed the plant during the summer of 2000.”
The facility was later acquired by the Newark Group, which continued operations until 2004. In 2012, Newark Group, which reportedly removed all of the equipment at the Middletown facility and the Franklin Boxboard facility, sold the properties to B.P. Logan LLC in 2012. Last summer, the former Franklin Boxboard facility along with Mindlin Recycling was demolished by its property owner, Cohen USAs who acquired it from BP Logan LLC in 2017.
Middletown Paperboard started as “a series of substantially constructed brick mills, warehouses, etc., the mechanical equipment embracing all the latest improved machinery and appliances known to the trade, and power being obtained from a water privilege and an auxiliary steam engine…”, wrote Harry Simms in “Middletown In Black and White.”
Over the years, it has been the target of vandalism, and its cavernous space allowed the homeless to shelter themselves from the elements. Public safety employees have checked on the building periodically, but there have been a few fires in past years as the property owner did not secure the building as requested by the city.
Then-city manager Doug Adkins testified this year before the Ohio House of Representatives and said that over the previous five years, Middletown had spent $100,000 on the abandoned property. He said a February 2018 fire resulted in $150,000 in property damage and cost the city about $17,000 to fight the fire that was ruled as arson. He said the estimated amount to clear the site was about $1.9 million.
In addition, the city spent thousands of dollars boarding up windows, securing doors, and putting up fencing to deter squatters and the homeless from entering the building.
The Middletown Paperboard property has been the subject of a tax forfeiture case against owner B.P. Logan LLC for not paying $259,565 in back taxes. It was ordered to go to the sheriff’s sale but was not purchased. Last month, the property was ordered to be forfeited to the state of Ohio by Butler County Common Pleas Court Judge Greg Howard, according to court documents.
Acting City Manager Susan Cohen said the city plans to work with the Butler County Land Bank to acquire the property for redevelopment as part of the Oakland Historic District project, a plan to rehabilitate the Oakland neighborhood into an urban renaissance incentive district.
Last month, a Butler County Common Pleas Court judge ordered that the property be forfeited to the state of Ohio. She said the city has never had an ownership interest in the property.
Jennifer Ekey, Middletown economic development director, previously said the Paperboard site will be listed in the city’s new master plan as a special interest area due to its proximity to the Oakland Neighborhood and future development project.
Middletown City Council has been working to beef up ordinances to hold property owners accountable for the condition of their residential, commercial, and industrial structures over the past few years as well as developing and implementing an updated planning, zoning and development code; a new master plan; a chronic nuisance ordinance; and a civil penalties ordinance to encourage property owners to maintain their properties to a minimum standard.
Last year, the council also updated a vacant building registry ordinance requiring property owners to furnish ownership, insurance, and other information to city officials. However, that ordinance only applies to the urban core downtown district and is for 10 years. The Paperboard site is just outside that zoning district. Shelby Quinlivan, the city spokeswoman, said only 12 downtown area properties are on the property registry.
Cohen said it would be up to the council to determine if that ordinance should be expanded to other parts of the city.