Southwest Area Commissioners learned about foreclosures, vicious dogs and vandalism from Judge Harland H. Hale of the Franklin County Environmental Court and Bryan Wagner, chief environmental specialist at their Feb. 20 regularly scheduled meeting. These speakers helped to clarify, for the commission and the audience, exactly what gets accomplished in environmental court.
Hale told the commissioners that foreclosures hurt people from all social classes, not just the poor. Recently a bank foreclosed on a house near the Columbus Zoo that appraisers priced at $650,000 but it probably originally sold for $1 million.
"It affects everyone across the board," Hale said. "Whether a person gets in over their head or they are subject to downsizing. A new guy comes (to your work), then chop here and chop there and soon you are unemployed."
If you fall behind on payments, ask your bank to change your interest rate, Hale said. If a house falls into foreclosure, the bank loses money; the bank would rather receive two percent interest from you than no percent.
Companies that insure mortgages have been severely damaged by the foreclosure trend. These companies assure the lenders that if you default on your loan, the banks will still receive their money.
Foreclosures represent one aspect of the environmental court. The court also includes zoning violations, domestic abuse, animal attacks and vandalism. Hale said the caseload each month totals more than 400, making it the busiest court in the state and among the top five busiest in the country.
In matters of zoning, the court represents a last resort. Approximately 90 percent of property owners comply with code enforcement officers. For the remaining 10 percent, Hale offers them the option to either fix their property or pay a fine and go to jail.
Wagner said that most code violators have fixed incomes and if you impose a fine or send them to jail they would have fewer resources to direct at the problem. However, if they do not attend to their property by the court’s deadline "jail can be a pretty good incentive."
Hale said people frequently ask him if illegal immigrants are responsible for the proliferation of dilapidated properties, but that is not the case. The property owners in his court have lived in America for years.
Vandalism in Franklin County costs property owners thousands of dollars. Before the South Campus Gateway opened the building owners spent $8,500 removing spray paint.
"A small segment of the community buys paint cans and creates their own logos," Hale said. "It’s cute for them to see their tag on the side of a building; it’s not so cute if you own the building."
In response, the state toughened penalties for vandals. For a first offense, a vandal must repay the property owner the price of the repair, receive a minimum ten days in jail, complete 100 hours of community service and remain on parole for five years.
Another Columbus problem is people who train pit bulls to attack.
"Experts indicate pit bulls, also called the American bulldog, are not necessarily predisposed to be vicious and violent," Hale said, "but pit bulls differ from most dogs in that they are significantly strong. You can train anyone to be a boxer, but if they don’t have strength and skill (they won’t win)."
A pit bull’s bite incurs 500 pounds of pressure and it will hold its grip for an extended period of time. Researchers have found that a 90 pound pit bull will clamp onto a rope and dangle by its jaws for three hours. Ninety percent of serious animal bites in Franklin County occur from pit bulls.
Many of the pit bulls are involved in dog fights, in addition a "certain segment of society owns pit bulls as status symbols, somehow making them bigger and tougher," Hale said.
A little over a year ago, police busted a large dog fighting ring in an old auto body shop near the corner of Hudson and Indianola. After searching the homes of the ringleaders, a pit bull training facility was discovered along with more abused dogs.
Hale said a litter of eight puppies had to be euthanized. Their ears had been roughly trimmed with scissors which led to bad infections.