WALLA WALLA -- The city of Walla Walla is asking a Superior Court judge for a warrant to enter and clean up the decimated Blue Mountain Mall property.
In a lawsuit filed Friday, officials said the owners of the once-thriving shopping center have ignored requests and a written order from the Walla Walla hearing examiner to clean up the property, which the city says has become a health and safety concern over the last three years. The complaint is the latest step in the city's efforts to get the property cleaned up over the last several months, said City Attorney Tim Donaldson.
"These folks haven't done anything. They've been unresponsive," he said this morning. "The time has come. It's past time."
If the request is approved, the chain of events that follows could ultimately force a sale of the commercial property that's been in a state of rubble and chaos for three years. But that's contingent on a number of factors, he said. The first order of business will be to serve the ownership company, Walla Walla Town Center LLC.
Donaldson said a process server arrived Friday at the Western Washington address for Walla Walla Town Center only to find the doors locked. He said the city is attempting to serve Greg Erickson, who is listed as a manager, member and registered agent for the limited liability company. Attempts at communication have been rebuffed, Donaldson said.
Telephone calls are not returned, and there have been no email exchanges since the city began its formal code enforcement process three months ago.
On April 4, the city issued a written notice of civil violation to Walla Walla Town Center for its property at 1631 W. Rose St. The suit says the action was taken after "unsuccessful repeated attempts" to gain the company's voluntary compliance.
Four categories of violations of the Municipal Code were cited:
The stalled redevelopment site has "an extensive amount of junk, litter and debris," which has been allowed to accumulate; the site perimeter fence contains several portions that are falling down or have gaps or holes; the free-standing walls from uncompleted demolition of the mall are unstable and their structural integrity is questionable; and graffiti has been applied to walls and surfaces within the site.
The suit cites public health and safety concerns.
Mall representatives had an opportunity to appear before the Walla Walla hearing examiner on April 21 to respond to the violations, but nobody showed up nor has anyone appealed the final order to abate the nuisance conditions by June 17.
In addition, only "minimal efforts" have been undertaken in response to a nuisance abatement order issued by the city's fire chief on March 24 regarding overgrown weeds and other vegetation on the property, according to the suit.
The complaint further says this week the company that provides the security fence around the property plans to remove it because Town Center officials haven't paid rent on the fence.
The city is asking a judge to restrain Town Center from allowing the nuisance conditions to continue, allow the city to obtain a warrant to enter the property and clean it up, assess Town Center all expenses and order it to pay civil penalties.
Donaldson didn't have an estimate on the cost to the city for cleanup. He said the city must be careful about how much improvement is made.
"One of the things we're trying to balance here is how much do we go in and do things which improve their value and have them take benefit," he said. "We're not going to put the public in a position where the public is (financing) their holding costs."
He said some abatement has already taken place for fire safety purposes, including weed abatement and creation of a fire break between the commercial property and a residential development to the east. The cost of that was maybe a couple of thousand dollars, Donaldson said.
He said an order of abatement through the court system is essentially a lien on the property. If the city leads some of the cleanup, the property owners could ultimately write the city a reimbursement check for the cost and continue to own the property. If they don't pay for the abatement, a sale could be forced. Even if Walla Walla Town Center does pay for abatement, it doesn't mean redevelopment will necessarily resume.
"If they do the things to bring the property into compliance, we don't have any mechanisms to require them to redevelop the property," Donaldson said.
Walla Walla Town Center will have 20 days to respond to the Superior Court filing once the complaint has been served.