SWAC hears about environmental issues

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Southwest Area Commissioners learned about foreclosures, vicious dogs and vandals 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.

Foreclosures

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.

Zoning

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

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 responce, 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.

Vicious dogs

Another Columbus problem is pit bulls. 

“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.

In other news

The commissioners also heard from Dru Bagley of the Hilltop Area Commission who asked the SWAC to host a town hall meeting for the Westside Health Advisory Commission of which Bagley also serves as co-chair.

The purpose of the town meetings is for residents to tell city officials of the health care needs of their community.

“It’s difficult for legislators to go to bat for you if you don’t speak for yourself,” Bagley said.

The program will kick-off on March 27 at WOSU’s studio inside COSI with the showing of the first segment of the documentary “Unnatural Causes… is inequality making us sick?”

WOSU will air the remaining segments Thursday nights at 10 p.m. throughout April.

Each town hall will begin with a segment from the film to spur discussion, Bagley said.

A press release describes the film as questioning “what makes people ill in the first place, and probes why economic status, race and zip code are even more powerful predictors of health status and life expectancy than smoking.”

The SWAC decided to join the Franklinton town hall meeting tentatively scheduled for April 22 at Mount Carmel West. No time has been set.

The health advisory commission will distribute fliers and posters throughout the area to promote the event.

For more information on the film, visit www.unnaturalcauses.org.

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