Badly damaged by a fire in March, the building formerly occupied by Happy Valley Chinese Restaurant, 111 East Herrick Ave., is beginning to cause headaches for village officials.
Structural damage in the roof and second story floor has made it unlikely the restaurant will ever reopen for business. Wellington fire chief Mike Wetherbee said during a recent planning commission meeting that owners of the building never purchased fire insurance and have not remained in contact with the village.
“There’s been no activity over there whatsoever, not even to pick up mail,” he said. “We need to find out what the owner’s intentions are as far as getting the building cleaned up. From there, I’m not sure where the village goes with it. I don’t want to cite the owners for the building being unsafe until a structural engineer tells me it’s unsafe. If the owner doesn’t get something going here, though, he will be cited.”
According to the Lorain County auditor’s website, the building was purchased by Man Hoy Kwong and Huan Wai, of Cleveland, for $60,000 in 2008.
Planning and zoning coordinator Marla Lent said the Wellington police and state building inspector have the authority to secure the building.
Wendy Xia, owner and operator of Happy Valley, has also not been in contact with the village, Wetherbee said. Leading up to the fire she had lived in the second story apartment above the restaurant where the blaze originated. Investigators determined space heaters in the apartment to be the likely cause.
“Water is getting in up there,” said Wetherbee. “Getting ahold her is going to be very difficult at this point, but it all falls back on the building owner. I am going to sit down with our former fire chief and see how he dealt with another issue in town that was somewhat similar.”
“The upstairs of this building is gutted and burned,” he added. “I’m surprised it’s not stinking up the town with the windows open. Letting the weather in like this is just further deteriorating the inside.”
Planning commission members were puzzled as to how the building was never required to carry fire insurance.
“I don’t really understand how there can be a building that directly connects with others but isn’t required to have insurance,” said planning commission chairman Phil Kunz. “They could burn the block down, not be insured, and just leave town. It’s one thing if it’s a free-standing building but this is a business interconnected with many others.”
Mayor Hans Schneider said he was told by village law director Steve Bond that no legal precedent could be found that would force a business owner to carry fire insurance.
“Car insurance is the obvious comparison,” Schneider said. “But that mandate is hinged on exercising the privilege of driving under a state license. There’s no privilege exercised by land owners hinged on village approval we could use to force them to have insurance.”
“Mr. Bond thought we could possibly have the fire district charge the owner for fire response costs,” he said. “Then, if they had fire insurance we could offer some sort of credit, but he can’t figure out any action between the two.”
“What will happen if someone gets into the building somehow and gets hurt?,” Kunz asked. “People will ask us why the village let that happen.”
Schneider said he would contact the Wellington police to see what steps need to be taken to secure the building.
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.