Polo Health Board ruling condemning house upheld in appeal

601 South Division Ave. declared ‘unfit for human occupancy;’ owner’s appeal unanimously denied by city council members

City officials have said this home, located at 601 S. Division Ave. on the corner of Illinois 26 and Oregon Street, in Polo, should be condemned.

City of Polo — POLO — The Polo Health Board’s ruling to condemn a house on South Division Avenue after declaring “unfit for human occupancy” was upheld following an appeal by the owner.

On Sept. 19, Polo City Council members voted unanimously to affirm the Aug. 26 decision of the Health Board, rejecting owner Ahmad Farraj’s appeal. Alderperson Keith Chesnut was absent from Monday’s meeting.

In multiple letters to Farraj, Polo Building Inspector Casper Manheim wrote that the house at 601 South Division Ave. meets the standards of “unfit for human occupancy.” Because repairs would cost more than the house is worth, the building needs to be demolished, he wrote.

“Mr. Farraj was sent a letter on June 11, 2021, stating he had 10 days to fix the violations, and again on Aug. 16, which is a time gap of 431 days,” Alderperson Tommy Bardell said. “Ample time has been granted for these conditions to be met. They have not been met.”

The Polo Board of Health consists of Mayor Doug Knapp, City Clerk Sydney Bartelt and Police Chief Troy Randall. Board members voted Aug. 26 to condemn the property.

Farraj filed a notice of appeal in a Sept. 8 letter to the city. The appeals hearing was held Monday, prior to the regular Polo City Council meeting.

At the start of the appeals hearing, city attorney M. Thomas Suits explained that information not presented at the Polo Health Board hearing couldn’t be brought in.

“The purpose of an appeal is to specify what errors were made in making the decision by the Health Board,” he said. “So new promises, new alleged facts that weren’t presented at the original hearing are not part of this.”

Farraj bears the burden of convincing council members that the Polo Health Board decision was made in error, Suits said. Usually, an appellant points to either an abuse of discretion, or an improper consideration of facts, he said.

“All of that inspection was wrong,” Farraj said. “Nothing, I didn’t see anything wrong with the building.”

Farraj said that city officials were “teaming up” with another resident to pressure him into selling 601 South Division Ave. to the individual.

Knapp confirmed that that claim had been discussed at the Health Board meeting.

“I told him that there was no validity whatsoever to that accusation … and that’s never had anything to do with our decision as a [health] board,” Knapp told Suits.

Farraj said he should have received pictures of the building inspection’s findings.

“I haven’t received a report from them; I haven’t received pictures. I haven’t received anything,” he said.

The Property Maintenance Code doesn’t require pictures be provided, Suits said. The inspector has to identify what parts of the code were in violation, at which point the burden shifts to the owner to fix those violations in a timely manner, he said.

“I think the argument is that that didn’t happen,” Suits said.

City officials, upon request, provided Shaw Media with copies of four letters written by Manheim and addressed to Farraj regarding the house. The letters are dated May 25, 2021; June 11, 2021; June 1, 2022; and Aug. 16, 2022.

In the May 25, 2021, letter, Manheim wrote that, “We have had several complaints from your tenants, dealing with holes in the floor, exposed wiring and other repair concerns.” He instructed Farraj to call him so they could set up a time for Manheim to do a walk-through of the property.

“The first floor is in such disrepair from plumbing, electrical and filth,” Manheim wrote in the June 11, 2021, and June 1 letters. “No one can live on the 1st floor until repairs are made and inspected by myself. A building permit will be required. A licensed plumber and electrician will be needed to do the work, along with it be inspected by myself.”

The June 11, 2021, letter notified Farraj that he had 10 days to have the first floor occupant moved out and to remove all rubbish from inside the house, the basement and the yard. In the June 1 letter, Farraj was instructed that all renters must be out by June 30, and the yard and driveway cleaned up.

Farraj was renting the first and second floors to separate people, Manheim noted in the Aug. 16 letter.

That goes against zoning regulations, as the building was zoned for single-family use only, he wrote. Additionally, “it was never designed or had safe guards between the two floors.”

Nothing in any of the letters is correct, Farraj insisted, and asked for an inspection performed by the state or a governing body above the city.

“It’s too late for that,” Suits responded. “If you wanted to present your own evidence at the Health Board hearing, you had every opportunity to bring in an expert to show that, or testify that there were no violations. That’s part of the process with a hearing.”

Following the council’s vote, Suits told Farraj that, if he wishes to take further action, that’s his choice. If he takes further action, he should review the Illinois Administrative Review Act.

“But without that, then the city can proceed to require you to demolish the property,” Suits said.

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner covers Ogle County for the Oregon Republican Reporter, Forreston Journal, Mt. Morris Times and Polo Tri-County Press. She has six-plus years of experience in journalism and has won numerous awards.