Gaping windows, shards of broken glass, cracked stucco, bulging walls, decaying floors, wide-open doors – the spirit has fled the old church, but the body remains.
Not for long: the building will be laid to rest in the coming months.
There are 11 “unsafe” structures in Kilgore currently on the city’s chopping block, and officials aim to mitigate as many of the structure as possible this quarter. That includes the former Martin Street Church of Christ.
Falling to pieces on the corner of Martin and Knowles, the decrepit structure has long exemplified the definition of a condemned building. Priming for demolition, however, takes time. The process to remove old buildings has to go through proper, legal channels, especially those still privately-owned.
“We’re talking about ones that are unsafe and/or in danger of structural collapse,” says B.J. Owen, the city’s director of special services. The church, for example, “is in such a state of neglect that it is wide open and there are parts of it that are in danger of collapsing.”
It’s been on Kilgore Code Enforcement Officer Justin Windham’s radar, and he makes periodic checks to determine how far the state of decay has advanced.
“There are two ways they come into our line of sight,” Owen said, “if they are unsafe, decrepit or in danger of collapse – we are going to tear them down. Or, it comes to us through a sheriff’s tax sale.
“Either way, if it’s a commercial building, we have to do an asbestos survey on it and then remove the asbestos-containing building materials – in our stock, probably 50 percent or more will have asbestos containing building materials because of the years our buildings were built. They used it commonly up to the ’70s.”
It’s still utilized in some products today, he added.
If the city becomes the owner of an unsafe property, tax dollars will be invested in an asbestos survey (about $1,000) and any necessary abatement (from $14,000 to up to $40,000-plus for a large structure like the old C.B. Dansby School).
That structure was demolished in 2013: “I got a grant for a brown field cleanup from Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs,” Owen said. “They helped pay disposal cost for asbestos-containing building material.”
Ultimately, once a property is processed under the law, it’s set for teardown and disposal.
The average home will range from $2,500 to $4,500 depending on the weight of the materials that need to be hauled off.
“We pay by the ton,” Owen said. “In that case, we budget money every year for some of those. This year it’s $40,000. It’s up from last year, which was about $10,000.
“With this council, knowing the importance of cleaning up the city, if I needed more money I could go back and ask for it.”
Some of those funds have been earmarked for the old Church of Christ building, and neighbor Diana Ponder’s eager to see the site razed and reclaimed. She lives nearby and regularly sees wanderers on – and inside – the property.
“There’s traffic through there at night. You can see people milling around on the outside of it occasionally. They’ve busted all the doors, so it’s not secured,” Ponder confirmed. “You know if they’re outside, they’re probably inside too. It kind of makes me nervous. That’s pretty close to me.
“Some months back they started busting out those beautiful stained glass pieces. It is really sad that has happened.”
The church’s glory days are long-since gone: like so many buildings that have reached the point of no return, it’s been languishing on the tax rolls for years.
On a privately-owned, unsafe structure, once things get underway “The process can take over a year before we can legally tear down somebody’s property without fear of repercussions,” Owen noted, beginning with notification of the owner-of-record. “We send them notice, tell them they have to tear it down or make repairs.”
According to Gregg County Appraisal District records, the church building was owned by Robert and Phyllis Barton as of December 1978 when the coupled converted it to Martin Street Church of Christ. In January 1986, the property deed changed hands from the church to Bettye Nell Bewley.
The site is still wholly-owned by Bewley in public records – she died in March 2012. Her husband, Jack, died in November of that year. Mail sent to Bewley’s official mailing address is marked ‘return to sender.’
All things considered, despite all its failings, the property still has a total assessed value of $49,420 of the property tax rolls. That includes a land value of $7,280. The tumbledown sanctuary has actually improved in value in past years – the assessment of the land is unchanged since 2013, but the building was valued almost $10,000 less seven years ago.
After consultations with tax attorneys, the church building is going to suit this month and will, most likely, be up in a sheriff’s sale on the steps of the Gregg County Courthouse in December for failure to pay taxes.
“I think we’ll end up with that one,” Owen said, doubtful any private bidder will be interested: even if someone wants the land underneath a doomed building, they incur all of the abatement and demolition cost as well as any other liabilities that come along with the property. “Nobody wants to buy it. They know there’s a reason it hasn’t been torn down.
“When it changes ownership, the code enforcement actions on it change with the owners. If they were to go buy it at the sheriff’s sale, that doesn’t discount the fact it’s under code enforcement.”
In most cases, a property will have accrued a pretty solid tax bill by the time it reaches the courthouse steps. The tax attorneys will be keen to clear the slate through the auction. Proceeds are distributed to the relevant taxing entities – City of Kilgore, Gregg County, Kilgore ISD and Kilgore College.
There are a myriad other buildings within the city limits that are on the razor’s edge of demolition, but not all meet the necessary requirements.
“First and foremost it has to be in danger of structural collapse before we can tear it down,” Owen said. It’s not enough that a building’s an eyesore, nor do gaping doors qualify one for destruction. “Just because it’s open doesn’t mean we can tear the building down. We actually can hire people to go board it up. That bill is sent to the owner of record. After not being paid for two weeks, we put a lien on the property.”
The city doesn’t leap immediately to the citation route: property’s owners who can be reached are given the opportunity to mitigate concerns before the city steps in to remove a hazard.
Even in a demolition scenario, “We understand that some folks don’t have enough money to tear down their building. We get that,” Owen said. “So we offer ‘consent to demolish’ where we’ll lien the property. We’ll tear it down, get rid of the nuisance and file a lien. The lien will sit there until the property changes hands.
“Some folks prefer that route to citations.”
Sometimes, though, a hard-line is necessary: three homes on West North Street are also in the city’s line of sight – one has already partially-collapsed.
“They’ve already been surveyed for asbestos,” Owen said. “They’re currently on our demolition list, and we’re citing the owners to see if we can motivate them to comply.”
In some situations, he noted, the city could offered to purchase the properties with an eye for spurring a redevelopment. That, however, sparks another set of time-consuming requirements, even if the end-goal is preferable.
Clearing off the detritus, “It increases the usability and marketability of that property,” he said. “When you have these unsafe structures on a piece of property it’s actually detrimental to the value of that property.”
Such demolitions are a necessary part of municipal operations.
“It’s very important,” Owen said. Besides being unsafe structurally, “From a public health standpoint we don’t want those buildings around for vagrants. We don’t want it as a harbor for rodents. We don’t want it for blight.
“From a property value standpoint, having a building like that devalues neighboring properties. You can’t sell anything in the neighborhood if that’s the entrance to the neighborhood.
“It’s important to the city to do those kinds of things. That’s what we’re tasked with: protecting property values. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Ideally, of course, property owners will mitigate problems without the city having to resort to enforcement.
“Property ownership has costs that go along with it,” Owen acknowledged. “I know it’s harsh sounding, but if you can’t afford to maintain a piece of property, you need to look at selling it so you can at least have something for it.”
Ponder’s certainly ready to see her neighborhood cleaned up, and she’s grateful for the city’s efforts.
“I’m hopeful that they can get all of the paperwork finished on it and they can get that eyesore off that corner,” she said. “I see things coming down around town. They’re working on it. I realize it takes time to get to that degree, when they can take them down.
“I don’t know what they would do with the land, but anything at this point would be much better than the traffic coming through there in the middle of the night. I don’t think it’s a safe environment.”
A longtime member of Kilgore Improvement & Beautification Association, Ponder recognizes the impact of the broader effort on the quality of life here.
“We work hard trying to make improvements and make things better,” she said, including stemming the vandalism that’s been taking place in the church. “We don’t like to admit it, but it happens, because some people absolutely don’t take any pride in things.
“It’s a problem. The city’s working on it. They’re trying to go through the proper channels where it can be corrected, and I appreciate that.”