NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - It's a nice, established neighborhood, just south of Wilmington in the unincorporated portion of New Hanover County. But a home in the Crosswinds subdivision was virtually abandoned by its owner 21 years ago, and neighbors have been paying the price.
When we went to see the half-finished home neighbors were complaining about, the first thing we noticed were the turkey vultures perched on neighbors' roofs, waiting for their next meal. Neighbors told us the large buzzards have been known to come by the dozens because of all the animals, both dead and alive, that can be found in the overgrown backyard of the abandoned home.
In addition to the unsightly birds, squatters have moved into the home at least one time before. The exterior of the brick home on Seabuoy Circle is basically finished, but the interior is not. Since the home has no electricity, the vagrants set a fire, and caused significant structural damage to the home's interior.
Neighbors Judy Shreve and Linda Root have lost patience waiting for the homeowner to finish construction. They say Richard MacKenzie started building the house in 1996, but stopped mid-construction, reportedly after a falling out with his subcontractor. For reasons unclear, he never resumed construction, and has failed to even respond to multiple offers to purchase the home as-is.
"We're flabbergasted, that somebody would allow this to just rot. And that's exactly what it's doing. It's rotting from the inside out," Shreve told WECT.
MacKenzie lives in Pasadena, Maryland. We tried to reach him at the number provided by the Crosswind's Homeowner's Association, but he didn't answer, and his voicemail box was full.
After being alerted to the wildlife and safety concerns at the home, New Hanover County also tried to reach MacKenzie. In April 2017, they sent him a certified letter, notifying him of a Condemnation Hearing in May to address the unsafe conditions at his home. MacKenzie did not respond, nor did he attend the hearing.
At that point, the County paid to repair some of the exterior problems that were allowing human and animal access to the home. The county put a $2,300 lien on the house to cover the costs of those repairs. But neighbors want a more permanent solution, and are asking the county to finish the house, or tear it down.
"It's been a very frustrating experience," Root explained of trying to get this problem resolved. "I feel like we pay our taxes. The county's responsibility is to protect our safety, and they are not doing it."
County Commissioner Rob Zapple explained that there is no Minimum Housing Code in the unincorporated portion of New Hanover County. State law gives the County the authority to condemn and demolish homes, but does not require them to. County leaders say it's expensive to condemn and demolish, and other taxpayers may not want to pick up the cost.
"The county has done what I think is our job to do, and we've drawn the line there," Zapple said. "I think only in situations where we have a complete structural failure like in a fire… that would be the only time, after a thorough vetting process, that the county might step in to condemn and demolish, but that is not the situation we are looking at Seabuoy [Circle] at all."
County Attorney Sharon Huffman could only remember two times in the last decade that the county demolished an abandoned home, and the safety concerns in those cases were more dire. The county has advised the Crosswinds Homeowners' Association to take legal action against the delinquent homeowner in civil court.
"That's really where the power of an HOA kicks in," Zapple suggested. "They have the authority to enforce their covenants, which usually means filing an action of some sort, and there usually is an expense, but that is up to them. The county is not in the business of condemning properties. There are certainly personal property rights which we are very respectful of."
Neighbors say the fact that MacKenzie has renewed his building permit again and again over the years has made it difficult for them to enforce their covenants. While it appears on paper he is planning to resume construction, experience has proven otherwise.
"He's not doing anything because he doesn't have to. He knows the system. And he's playing it," Shreve lamented.
The Crosswinds HOA has been extremely reluctant to initiate legal proceedings, although that appears to be their most viable option. They don't want to incur the up-front legal expenses.
However, an attorney we consulted about this situation says the HOA has a strong case that this absentee homeowner is "maintaining a nuisance" and they may be able to recoup their attorney's fees if a judge rules in their favor.
Attorney Duke Lineberry said that if the homeowner absolutely refuses to comply, the HOA could push for a private condemnation to force the sale of the home.