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Eugene seeks to have nuisance home vacated

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 19, 2013 at 3:24 pm •  Published: January 19, 2013
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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Under a law aimed at cleaning up properties that have become havens for criminals, Eugene officials in a rare move are asking a court to order a man to vacate the house he owns and leave it empty for a year.

A complaint and supporting documents filed in Lane County Circuit Court allege that the home in west Eugene has become a hangout for drug users. According to Eugene police, officers have made numerous arrests at or near the house and have gone there nearly 100 times in the last four years.

Under a state nuisance abatement law, local governments can seek court orders closing residences or buildings that are being used for drug crimes, gambling or prostitution after notifying the owners of ongoing problems and giving them a chance to remedy them. If granted, such orders effectively require that the building be vacated, locked up and used for no purpose for a period of one year.

Authorities in Eugene use the law infrequently, and the city just once has used it to its full extent and actually forced the closure of a house, police said.

That happened with a house that coincidentally concluded its one-year closure on Saturday. However, it's not clear if that homeowner will be allowed to move back in. The city has a $15,000 lien against the property to pay for the costs of obtaining the court order and keeping the house closed, and the property currently is in foreclosure.

The west Eugene home is owned by Jeffrey Lyn Orrell, 44. Court records show Orrell was convicted of methamphetamine possession and drunken driving in 2011 and later violated his probation.

Kelly Putnam, a community service officer for the Eugene Police Department, said police initially warned Orrell in February 2012 that they would seek the forced closure if problems at the house weren't remedied. In a letter dated Feb. 16 of that year, Police Chief Pete Kerns noted that people at the house had been cited or arrested on drug charges in three separate cases stemming from a recent investigation.

Then two months ago, attorneys for the city sent another letter alleging that drug activity still was taking place on the property. That letter noted that previously, Orrell told an officer he had received the first notice and later told Putnam he would take care of the problem. "The illegal activity has not ceased," the November letter said, "and the neighbors in the area are still being subjected to the nuisance created by the illegal activities."

Putnam said she has spoken to Orrell and he is aware of the situation and its consequences. She said several people besides Orrell also seem to be living at the residence.

According to Eugene police records, officers have been called to or visited the address 93 times since January 2009. During those visits police generated 28 case reports, most of them arrests of people wanted on outstanding warrants.

One person who lives on the street but asked not to be identified because of concern over possible retaliation said people are in and out of the house at all hours. The person said many other houses on the street have been broken into and that neighbors are worried that criminal activity could spread. "People just aren't comfortable," he said.

Putnam said most nuisance cases never get this far. The city on average sends out fewer than 10 letters a year advising property owners that the city will seek closure if the owner doesn't halt ongoing crime at a particular address.

Most often the location is a rental, and Putnam said nine times out of 10 the owner contacts police immediately. The owner usually is unaware of the situation and typically fixes it by evicting the problem tenant, Putnam said.

Occasionally, police see a situation where a parent living out of state has bought a house for an adult child to use while in college or looking for a job, and the house has become a magnet for drug users. In one current case, a mother is opting to evict her son from a house to avoid having it declared a nuisance, she said.

It's rare to get this far in the process with an owner-occupied house, Putnam said, but sometimes it's necessary to protect law-abiding neighbors.

"Sometimes we're left with no other choice, for the good of the neighborhood more than anything," she said. "These are good, hard-working people who have children, and they don't want to live next door to a house were heroin addicts and meth users are in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night."

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com