Bog Road fire puts spotlight on condemned houses in Rockland

Sat, 12/09/2023 - 2:30pm

    ROCKLAND — “It’s gut wrenching, and we only act when the house gets to the point of no return,” said Wyatt Philbrook, of the Rockland Code Enforcement Office.

    A house on the Bog Road recently came under scrutiny by the City after a November 15, 2023 fire. It wasn’t the fire that raised eyebrows, after a person was burned while attempting to accelerate a basement woodstove by adding gas. It was the condition of a house where people lived. Yet, as bad as it seemed, those conditions are not unheard of for Rockland. In the past year or so, Philbrook has been involved in condemning five other houses prior to 161 Bog Road.

    Jim and Donna Jillson, of Arizona, own the house, according to public records and a GoFundMe fundraiser. For the last three years, they have resided out of state, and at some point allowed a person to live on the first floor, according to Philbrook. But, only the first floor. That person was no longer living there at the time of the fire.

    Until a few days prior to the Nov. 15, fire incident, the Jillsons did not know about man living on the second floor, or a family of three who occupied the basement. Philbrook said he didn’t know if a tenant had tried to sub-let portions of the house, or if the newer tenants were invited in.

    According to the GoFundMe, the Jillsons had only recently become aware of the occupants and the sub-par conditions of the house, and had given eviction notices prior to Nov. 15.

    In the wake of the fire, which had been extinguished before arrival of Fire Department, emergency responders found a house that was totally uninhabitable. It was illegally occupied. It met neither the building safety code nor the City of Rockland code. It lacked proper three-fixture bathrooms. There was no proper kitchen. No smoke and carbon monoxide protection. No fire separation between the lower dwelling and the upper dwelling. Sleeping areas in the basement were not protected from the rest of the space, including the boiler area.

    “There were more electrical violations in one space than I’ve ever encountered before,” he said, while listing unlicensed wiring, dangerous connections, and open conductors.

    There were various plumbing violations, to the point where human waste was being emptied into buckets.

    And, there were no permits for the house.

    Usually, according to Philbrook, occupants of a house are given a few weeks notice in advance of an eviction from a condemned house. However, circumstances at the Bog Road house were so dire that Philbrook condemned the house immediately, with Jillson’s support via telephone, while also allowing a few days of prearranged appointments so that the occupants could get their stuff out. Philbrook himself assisted Richards with relocating personal items to his vehicle. The James family, like so many others who don’t want to be noticed for one reason or another, could not be reached by phone, and therefore weren’t around for the resources that Philbrook can sometimes offer.

    Sometimes Philbrook can ask another landlord if another apartment can be arranged. Sometimes, he can maintain a friendly relationship with evicted occupants. Yet, sometimes, the process of condemning turns into a remote and forced seizure.

    Despite many attempts, Philbrook never met the owner of 40 Knott Street.

    250 Park Street was an abandoned structure full of water damage, mold, sanitation issues, and had become a hangout for teenagers.

    10 Camden Street Terrace was an elderly situation that turned into hoarding and an inability to keep up with sanitary measures.

    47 Lawn Ave was the site of hoarding and raw sewage.

    All of the houses had rodents.

    18 Glenwood Street was a structure that was growing more and more likely to collapse, but it had taken several years of attempts to interact with the owners before the City stepped in and corrected the problem, though the owners tore down a garage voluntarily.

    “We always try to give people a chance to bring the building out of being condemned,” said Philbrook. “The notices and violations issued state clearly that if you fix these conditions, this order will be lifted. We usually give timelines, but if there are people in there, if you condemn a building, they have to go. It’s not negotiable.”

    The point of condemning is to force an outcome, according to Philbrook.

    “You can drive by a building day after day and you will stop seeing it, eventually,” he said.

    But, they become blights on the neighborhood. They draw rats and other animals. They become health hazards and life-safety hazards for the surrounding environment.

    “The primary thing is to document the issue and then get people out,” he said. “Not because we want them on the street. It’s because we need them to not be in those conditions anymore. And hopefully, where they go is better.”

    Like many of the other condemned buildings, 161 Bog Road can be rehabilitated. The Jillsons have been informed of what they need to correct, and, because winter is here, the rehab is allowed to occur through the spring – with the understanding that if winter has some mild spells, then the work to bring the structure up to code will resume at those opportunities.

    “The ultimate goal is to make sure that no one is in there, subjected to those conditions anymore,” said Philbrook.

    Click here to view the Jillson’s GoFundMe page.

    Click here to view the November 15, 2023 fire article. 


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