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FOX 13 Investigates: Utah law can close a meth house, but no one has to fix it

Neighbors complain about a "meth house loophole" that leaves dozens of contaminated homes still standing
Posted at 9:40 PM, Nov 25, 2020

MIDVALE, Utah — Neighbors have complained for years about the house near the end of the cul-de-sac. They suspected it was a den for drug users.

People were coming and going from the house at all hours of the day and night. Over the years, there have been multiple arrests.

In July, police served a search warrant looking for drugs and drug dealers in the home.

“We have actually found a meth pipe in front of their house,” said one neighbor, who asked to not be identified for fear of angering the people who own or have lived in the home. "Something is screwed up here. Something is wrong."

The Salt Lake County Health Department found the home contaminated with methamphetamine and has forbidden anyone from living there. Test results showed meth levels 120 times higher than the legal limit.

Neighbors said the closure hasn't solved their issues.

Now the house is one of 89 meth-contaminated properties in Salt Lake County currently sitting empty. There are no laws requiring homeowners or anyone else to remediate the buildings.

Neighbors like those next to the meth house in Midvale worry the contaminated properties are driving down their real-estate values and driving crime into their communities.

“What we’re trying to prevent is people from being exposed to meth sort of like second-hand smoke,” explained Kerry Kramer, a supervisor with the Salt Lake County Health Department. "There have been a number of researchers that said if you live in a house that has been contaminated with meth, you’re going to start experiencing the same symptoms as somebody who’s actually using the meth."

But the legal requirements end when the last occupant leaves the house.

“A house that’s boarded up and locked up, and nobody’s going in or coming out? That’s not a health hazard,” Kramer said. "As long as the property is secure, there’s no requirement it has to be decontaminated."

The oldest currently-active meth contamination case in Salt Lake County is a property in West Jordan that has been contaminated since 2008.

For the residents living near Midvale meth house, it's already been years of frustration.

"I think obviously the health department needs to take it a little bit more serious," said one neighbor "I think they need to have more rules."

"There are any number of loopholes that people can take advantage of. That’s not necessarily wrong or anything, it’s just built into the law," Kramer responded. "I’m not really sure that you can pass laws or regulations that cover odd circumstances."

Sgt. Melody Cutler with the Unified Police Department said officers have responded to 75 calls to the home in 2020. That number increases to "well over 100" over the last two years.

“We understand and feel (neighbors) frustration,” Cutler said. “We have that frustration as well. We keep going back there time after time after time after time... We encourage them to keep calling so that we can have proper documentation."

The owner of the Midvale home said she is working on decontaminating the house, but progress has been difficult due to her age and financial constraints. She said she doesn’t appreciate her neighbors' complaints.

“Mind your business,” the owner said. “Leave us alone. Let us do it.”

“I’m trying my darndest to be out of here within the next 30 to 60 days.”

The owner acknowledged some responsibility for the meth contamination. The house’s former occupants include her son and brother.

"Obviously it’s not a crime to have poor judgment," Cutler said.

Larry Burton, the original owner of the home whose name is still on the deed, said he blames a former "friend" who stayed in the basement.

“I took him to court and the court excommunicated him out of my home,” Burton said.

Neighbors want the house decontaminated so it’s no longer an eyesore, but they feel like homeowners are dragging their feet.

“There was a dumpster for a whole week. It sat there empty,” said another concerned neighbor. “It shouldn’t take this many months to work through an issue like that."

“The state should take ownership of it,” a third neighbor said. “There’s some states — You get a DUI? They take the car. In a case like that, maybe the state takes the house... If they’re going to spend years destroying the house with all the traffic and the drugs, they should be forced to have it professionally done so it’s taken seriously."

The homeowners are currently attempting to clean the property without professional help.

"I’ve been (overseeing meth decontamination cases) about 15 years," Kramer said. "I’ve had three private citizens do it successfully out of thousands of cases."

Cutler said landlords are always responsible for what goes on inside the home, which is why they recommend doing background checks on potential tenants and evicting anyone suspected of criminal activity.

Homeowners are permitted to sell their property to another party who is willing to handle the decontamination.

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