The city of Sandy Springs is moving to demolish a house that remains in disrepair four years after its condemnation amid ownership confusion, laying out a plan informally approved by a city judge Feb. 3.

The city will immediately remove six “dangerous trees” and soon bring in an environmental engineer to figure out the demolition method and cost of 337 Hilderbrand Drive for later court approval, said City Attorney Wendell Willard at the Feb. 3 hearing. An attorney for JPMorgan Chase, the bank that disputes city contentions that it owns the house, said the bank is in the process of finding a new owner who could reimburse the city’s costs.

The fire-damaged house at 337 Hilderbrand Drive lingers in disrepair nearly four years after it was condemned. (Photo John Ruch)

“So we need to have the property demolished,” Willard told the court after listing various problems found in inspections since a previous court date in January. “There’s nothing there to be saved.”

The pre-demolition inspections will likely take “several weeks,” he said.

Attorneys for Chase and for former occupant Charles Farlow agreed to the plan, which will be formalized and signed by Chief Judge Donald Schaefer within the next few days.

Mayor Rusty Paul sat in the courtroom audience during the Feb. 3 court hearing, as did Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert and Steve Oppenheimer, who is president of the area’s Glenridge Hammond Neighborhood Association.

“I just wanted to make sure it got done and got some resolution,” the mayor said of his reason for attending.

Oppenheimer, who led a petition effort last fall to get renewed city action on the house, said he’s pleased there is finally a “clear path” for solving the property’s safety issues.

Also attending was a neighbor of 337 Hilderbrand who recently had his roof and truck struck by falling limbs from decaying trees on the property. The neighbor has asked to remain anonymous.

“It’s encouraging, this movement,” the neighbor said. “I’m just hesitant to get too excited given how much Chase has stalled this project.”

“My concern is Chase slow-walking this because they know how many developers are buzzing around the neighborhood” and hope to get a higher selling price, he said.

The Hilderbrand house is among thousands nationwide left in disrepair amid legal confusion and finger-pointing in the wake of the 2007-2008 mortgage crisis. It was condemned after a February 2013 fire that forced Farlow, who runs a Sandy Springs beauty salon, to move out and caused extensive damage he has said he couldn’t afford to repair.

City records show that since that time, city inspectors have been foiled in attempts to hold anyone responsible for fixing the property. Farlow–whom the city once jailed over the property’s condition–previously said in an interview that the property already had a complicated legal situation following a dispute with Chase over mortgage payments, as he put the house in his mother’s name, filed bankruptcies and sought loan modifications. Meanwhile, Chase gave various and contradictory answers to inspectors about its responsibility for the property, according to city records, and maintains that the bank does not own the property, though county records say otherwise.

Some confusion continued at the Feb. 3 hearing, where the case was on the court calendar twice under both Farlow’s and Chase’s names. Judge Schaefer finally called the case by saying, “That’s on JPMorgan Chase, Charles Farlow—and anyone else?”

Doug Davis, an attorney for Farlow, claimed that Farlow “never owned this property. He just helped his mother.” She transferred the deed to Chase, he said.

David Pernini, an attorney for Chase, did not directly addresses the bank’s denial that it owns the property. But he told the court that “we are in the process of getting a new titleholder of the property” and wants to make sure that any demolition costs are taken up by that new owner.

“I’m fine with that,” Schaefer said.

Following the recent neighborhood petition effort, the city returned to court in January and got an order allowing inspectors to enter the property and determine whether it’s a public safety hazard. With public safety issues, the city can take action with court approval regardless of who owns the property.

Willard said the city estimates the tree removal will cost about $3,690 and the house demolition could cost as much as $30,000. The city will do that work itself and will seek reimbursement through a lien placed on the property, if the court later approves it. That lien would supersede any others except for tax liens, Willard said.

The house has some serious structural problems, Willard told the court, including “beams…that are deteriorated.”

“It is a danger,” Willard said in an interview minutes before the court hearing. “It is also what you might call an attractive nuisance,” he said, meaning it could draw trespassers, as Farlow and neighbors say is already happening.

The house dates to 1942 and may require abatement of lead paint and asbestos prior to demolition, which is why the city needs the environmental engineer’s inspection. That abatement is why the city estimates a demolition cost about double the typical amount, Willard said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.