Mary Amsberry, Lauri Walter and Kim Lillejord, the three owners of Blaine Bouquets, were frantically preparing Valentine's Day orders at their shop when a plumber walked in to deliver some disturbing news.
“The sewer line is blocked up down the street,” plumber Andrew Young said, and he asked them to limit their water use to prevent flooding into the building next door. It was two days before every flower shop's busiest day of the year.
The business owners were aghast. “How are we supposed to water the flowers?" Amsberry asked.
Young said they could still use water, but any going down the drain would be bad news for the neighbors. He explained that the blockage was under a vacant building two doors down, and that his crew couldn't fix the problem without permission from the absent property owners. Amsberry, Walter and Lillejord knew right away which building the plumber was talking about.
Fifteen years ago, 665 Peace Portal Drive was the home of Costa Azul Restaurant. Since then, the slowly decaying building has caused nothing but headaches for the two businesses in the conjoined properties next door, according to their owners.
Blaine Bouquets occupies the building at the north end of the three–parcel, conjoined commercial block. Needful Things Consignment shop sits between Blaine Bouquets and the vacant property. Both businesses hook up to a sewage line that runs downhill to the vacant building before joining the sewage main on the street.
Brenda Graves, who owns Needful Things, said when she started smelling sewage last week, she immediately suspected a problem with the empty building next door.
She called her property manager Roger Hanson after the toilet and sinks began to back up. Hanson called Prodigy Plumbing, a business owned by Blaine graduates Vic and Andrew Young. The Young brothers arrived on the scene and assessed the problem.
After telling the Blaine Bouquets ladies about the blockage, Young led Amsberry to the back of the building and pointed out a leak in the sewage outflow pipe at the back of the vacant property. Young explained that the blockage occurred somewhere between the leak and the city’s main line, and although he and his brother knew how to fix the problem, property rights prevented them from moving forward.
“If we make repairs without permission from the property owners, not only will we probably not receive payment, but we open ourselves up to a lawsuit and trespassing charges,” Vic Young said. “It can get really sticky with these conjoined commercial properties.”
Bruce Wolf owns the Needful Things property. According to Hanson, Wolf was in France, and could not be reached for comment, but Hanson said, “I can speak for him in saying that we would like to see something done about this issue. We’re hoping the city will be able to step in and help us out instead of making this a huge mess for the property owners.”
“We’ve dealt with leaks and blockages on this sewer line in the past, and it’s become a very frustrating issue,” Amsberry said. “We had our whole plumbing redone last summer, and the health inspector came and signed off on it, so we’ve done all we can do.”
Graves said the plumbing in the Needful Things property was redone last summer as well.
Amsberry, Walter, Lillejord, and Graves all voiced their frustration with the city for not condemning and demolishing the vacant building years ago.
“The city refuses to do anything about the situation and we are extremely frustrated,” Amsberry said.
When asked about the building, Blaine City Manager Gary Tomsic said, “It's becoming a nuisance, so it’s something we may have to start looking into.” However, he added, it’s not simple to condemn and tear down a property.
“Condemnation is a long and costly process,” he said. “It would cost the city thousands of dollars.”
Another option is to take the property owner to court and force them to bring the building into compliance (with court fees falling on the city), and a third option is to go in and make the necessary changes at cost and hazard to the city. Tomsic said the city would probably not get compensated for repairs until the property sells, at which point a lien on the property would partially reimburse the city.
Tomsic said there is evidence of homeless people squatting in the unkempt building.
According to Whatcom County records, the building is owned by Adolfina Kozlowski, but the Ferndale resident died in 2009, and Tomsic said even when Kozlowski was alive, she wasn’t the one paying taxes on the building.
The annual taxes on the building – close to $4,000 – have been paid through 2012. Tomsic said he knows who is paying those taxes, but was not at liberty to divulge the information.
“He lives in Seattle,” he said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to give his name.”
After Graves made some calls to the city, the plumbers came back and went ahead with repairs. Luckily for Graves, Amsberry, and anyone who ordered Valentine roses from Blaine Bouquets, the plumbers were able to clear the blockage.
The Young brothers speculated that drywall crumbling into the toilets and drains contributed to the blockage.
“They got it fixed, but they told me it’s going to be an ongoing problem,” Graves said. “I expect they’ll be back.”