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County confronts ‘menace’ property

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LOVINGTON — Written warnings and citations over three years proved insufficient to clean up the property at 201 E. Teague Dr. in the county north of Hobbs. So, the Lea County Commission on Thursday unanimously approved the next step.

The commission passed a resolution finding a building and the premises “to be a menace to the public and requiring the removal thereof.”

After 10 days from posting the resolution on the property and publishing it in the newspaper, the county will seek bids for cleaning up the property, placing a lien on it to recoup the cost.

Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Long, in whose district the property lies, said she has received numerous calls and counted 11 abandoned boats on the property “destroyed, burned out, upside down, on their side.” Long represents county commission district 2, generally north Hobbs to southern Lovington.

Long’s count was low as seen from driving by the property, according to Lorenzo Velasquez, director of the Lea County Environment Department. Velasquez said there are at least 51 abandoned vehicles, including boats, then showed a Google Map aerial photograph he estimated was taken in March or April.

Commissioner Pat Sims interjected, “It doesn’t look like that, now. It’s got seven-foot weeds.”

“We started this back in 2018,” Velasquez told commissioners, proceeding through a timeline that included discussions with the current tenant at that address, then warnings and citations that led to a court ruling in the county’s favor.

Finally, Velasquez said, the citations to the tenant were dismissed “because we weren’t going to go after him anymore. We were going after the property owner.”

When Sims asked the identity of the property owner, County Attorney John Caldwell responded that a title search discovered, “He died in the year 2000. The property was never probated.”

Caldwell continued, “It appears there was somebody who believed he had a contract for deed. That person also passed in 2015. His son continued to pay property taxes. I have spoken with him and he cannot find a document that shows his father had a contract for deed on the property. So, there is no existing owner. It’s never been probated.”

The county is following through on an ordinance approved in July 2019 identifying nuisances in the Lea County/Hobbs Extraterritorial Zone.

Caldwell explained the process is being followed for the first time.

“Once (the resolution) is posted on the property and published in the newspaper, 10 days after that, we can proceed with taking care of the items on the property, unless the owner or somebody who believes they have an interest in the property steps forward and asks for a hearing before this commission,” Caldwell said.

In the event someone does make such a request, a hearing would be held to determine if the resolution should be upheld.

“If they don’t come forward, then the Environmental Department will move forward with cleaning the property, probably by retaining a third party do do the cleanup,” Caldwell continued. “We would then place a lien on the property.”

Unfortunately, a long wait then ensues, the county attorney said.

“According to state law, the state does not move to enforce the failure to pay property taxes for three years. This will be a lengthy process,” Caldwell said. “We get the property cleaned up and it’s just going to sit there for three years before the state decides to foreclose on it. Then, we will have a lien for whatever we paid to clean up the property.”

Commissioners expressed pleasure at taking the first step.

“I am going to be optimistic that as we start doing these type of things, hopefully, it will make people understand that you don’t get to be a trashy bad neighbor,” Chairwoman Long said. “The other people that are keeping their properties clean, they don’t have to look at this type of thing because we have ordinances. There are ordinances all over the whole United State against this type of thing, not just in Lea County. This is a wonderful first start.”

Sims wasn’t satisfied with Long’s description, “I don’t know that I would go for condemning somebody’s property just because they’re a trashy bad neighbor, but this is not a trashy bad neighbor. This is beyond. This is insane.”

Long agreed, “It goes beyond trashy bad neighbor. I get calls about rats and mice and snakes that live in this type of area, so this type of thing is a health hazard for the neighborhood. We’ve got to step in where it’s a health hazard for the neighborhood.”

Commissioner Dean Jackson acknowledged he opposed the nuisance ordinance in 2019 for his district, but sees its advantage today. Jackson represents county commission district 1, northern Lea County.

“When (the original ordinance) was passed, I was against it in my district,” Jackson said. “Upon further review, I’m going to go to change the resolution where it will include my district because there’s a lot of this in my district.

“I hate to come and tell you, the property owner, you have to do this and this. I don’t really believe in that, but something like this is ridiculous,” Jackson continued. “All the steps you’re given to clean it up. I hate Big Brother, but this is ridiculous.”

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