By Linda Looney-Bond
Clayton County authorities say they're working to secure, and clean up, a vacant Jonesboro apartment complex, where four fires - believed to have been started by vagrants - have erupted this year.
Fire destroyed a building Monday at the Evergreen Apartments, located at 555 Battle Creek Rd., according to Battalion Chief Landry Merkison, of the Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services Department.
Merkison said there were also two fires at the complex in September and another blaze destroyed the clubhouse at the location in January.
No one was injured in the fires, according to Merkison.
"We're confident it [fire] was the result of a human act," said Merkison. "Now, what that act was, or who those humans were - that's what we're trying to figure out.
"Was it vandals, who threw a cigarette down? How it was done, we don't know," Merkison said. He said the causes of the fires are under investigation.
"Of course, we've interviewed ... any by-standers that we can find, but there's nobody around. You don't have witnesses. You don't have the normal 50-60 people in a normal complex that you can talk to," he said.
According to Merkison, the apartment complex has been vacant, at least, since January. "They've [the buildings] been unsecure for the better part of a year," he said.
Wednesday, the gate at the entrance of the complex was open. Among the buildings that remain standing, doors to many of the apartment units were open as well. Also trash and debris covered portions of the parking lot.
Merkison said the apartments were not condemned, but were simply left vacant. He said the county is attempting to identify and locate the owner of the property.
"More than likely, they were probably foreclosed, and the owners just walked away from them. I don't think they were uninhabitable, probably just a victim of the financial crisis," he said.
Merkison said he did not know the exact age of the complex, but said the earliest certificate of occupancy on file for the buildings dates back to 1991.
He said county officials have not been able to locate the owners. The last owner of the property listed in tax records is Norwood Associates, at a Stone Mountain address. "That [phone] number's been disconnected, and they're out of business," he said.
Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services Chief Alex Cohilas, who is also the county's chief of staff, said Wednesday that several steps would have to be followed in a "complicated" process, in order for the county to take over the property.
However, he said, in general, the county can "force clean" a property that is deemed to be abandoned. "We hire a company that comes in and picks up the trash, cuts the grass, makes the property more appealing, and makes it safer. The cost for that, we attach to the tax bill, so when the taxes get paid on the property, the county is reimbursed for the effort of cleaning up the property," Cohilas said.
Clayton County Deputy Police Chief Greg Porter said the police department's Code Enforcement Unit is in the process of taking steps to secure the property. "We have three or four vendors, who have been identified, to give us an assessment of how much it will cost to remedy the safety aspect," he said.
Porter said any action taken could include boarding up and cleaning the property, as well as possibly putting a fence around it.
Dr. Robert Alpert, a chiropractor whose practice is located on Tara Boulevard, near the intersection of Tara and Battle Creek Road, said there has been an increase in crime in the area, which he attributes, in part, to vagrants coming from the vacant Evergreen Apartments.
"They're not roped off, the doors are open, they're vacant," he said. "There's easy access. They're [vagrants] walking up and down the street all night long. Last night, three people stopped me when I was on the way out of my office, asking me for money."
Alpert said his practice has been located at 7202 Tara Blvd., for more than 15 years. He said he also owns, and leases out, a strip mall next door, which houses a grocery store, a church, an insurance firm, a tax-preparation business, and a hair salon.
He said there have been several break-ins at the strip mall since July. "There were three [break-ins] at the hair salon ... one break-in at the church, and two at the grocery store," he said.
Alpert said he has spent thousands of dollars on security improvements, including a video surveillance system and burglar bars for his two properties. "My tenants are telling me that when their lease is up, they're leaving. That's a big concern to me as a landlord," he said.
"I would like to see increased police presence. I'd like to see follow-up, and I'd like to see good communication between the victim and the police," he said.
Alpert was one of a handful of people who took their concerns to the Clayton County Board of Commissioners during the board's meeting Tuesday night.
Following the meeting, he said he met with Chief of Staff Cohilas.
"He [Cohilas] pulled me and the other two or three people that were there [for that issue] aside. He sat us down with the deputy chief of the area," Alpert said. "He ordered some surveys and statistical data from that area, and he's supposed to get back to us, and see how valid what we're saying is."
According to Alpert, Cohilas said he would consider increased police presence in the area of Tara Boulevard and Battle Creek Road, and would consider developing a neighborhood watch program for the area.
During a phone interview Wednesday, Cohilas confirmed the conversation with Alpert. "We are not going to have criminals running rampant in any part of Clayton County, or have citizens living in fear, and businesses suffering as a result of criminal activity," he said.