TONEY, Ala. - A Madison County couple is cleaning up a big mess after buying a rat-infested foreclosure. They tell WHNT News 19 they bought the home because it was an eyesore for their community. Now, they want to know why it was never cleaned up after years of complaints filed by them and their neighbors.
Jim and Michelle Bowie moved to Morris Road 15 years ago. They recently purchased the house next door because they love the area.
"We were surprised to find out that it was going up for sale at the courthouse steps. On the third of November, we went down there. I said whatever it costs, we're going to buy this property, we're not letting this exist," Bowie said.
Bowie said the previous owners were hoarders. For eight years, he watched junk pile up outside. He said he complained to the Madison County Commissioners, the Sheriff's Office and Health Department.
"In most cases it was dismissive in nature, 'hey are you related?' No we're not. We're neighbors. We're seeing these sorts of things. 'Yeah, yeah, don't worry about it we'll check it out," Bowie claimed.
Considering how the yard looked, he assumed the conditions inside were pretty bad. He didn't know the extent of it until he became the owner.
"I didn't see anything this horrific in two tours in Iraq," said Bowie.
"Rooms that are filled floor to ceiling with rot, debris, decaying food, rats running everywhere, the smell of dead animals, and decaying stuff," Bowie explained.
He's infuriated the family who lived in it wasn't forced to clean it up, especially because the health department reached out to him about the property last week.
He said they told him they'd give him a few months to clean it up.
"Like it's our responsibility, for eight or nine years this has been being formed," Bowie said.
He tells WHNT News 19 it's clearly an environmental hazard, and thinks the local government should be involved in the situation.
"What does it take for our authorities to actually step up and do something about this?" asked Bowie.
Cases like this one are not only a headache for neighbors, but also county commissioners.
"It's a lengthy process because you want to make sure that you give people ample time to clean up their property and work with them without imposing a fine on them," said District Four Commissioner Phil Vandiver.
Madison County has a junk ordinance in place. You can file a complaint at your commissioner's office or the courthouse.
"They take a team out there and they evaluate it and see if it qualifies to match up to our junk ordinance and move forward with it," said Vandiver.
If it falls under the criteria, the property owner is put on notice. The county then gives them a date to have it cleaned up by. If they don't comply, a penalty can be imposed. It ranges anywhere from $150 a day to a maximum fine of $5,000.
"A lot of the times they just pay it, sometimes they clean it up, sometimes they don't," Vandiver said.
Unlike a city, the county doesn't have zoning. Counties aren't able to condemn a property and tear it down.
We wanted to know, is there a better way to resolve issues like this one?
"I don't know if I have an answer to that. It's one that we will continue to evaluate as we move forward. We may need to work with our legislature to see what we can and cannot do," explained Vandiver.
As for Jim and Michelle, the county can't help them.
"We'd love to help a lot of folks like that because we have the equipment and the stuff. We don't have the legal ability to do that. You know, I can't go on private property and do somebody's work for them. It just wouldn't be proper to do that with the county's equipment," Vandiver said.
There is no limit as to how many times a violator can be fined. The county can sue a property owner for not paying the fine. If the matter goes to court, the county can file a motion to hold a property owner in contempt.
However, the county told us it recognizes that by throwing them in jail, they're unlikely to clean up the property.