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By Anna Lothson
Abandoned properties cause all kinds of complications. Spurring crime, dropping nearby property values and creating an eye-sore are just a few consequences of foreclosed homes.
Tucked behind 1145 S. Humphrey Ave. in Oak Park is a carriage house that's become famous for attracting daring kids hoping for a peek inside the vacant property, but recently it has attracted unwanted visitors that have made neighbors wary about being outside after dark.
The subjects in question are the influx of raccoons that neighbors have reported seeing, including a night when one woman noticed about a dozen sitting in one tree.
Oak Park resident Tara Schaafsma and her neighbor Aida Stefanelli have reported the issue to the village, but because of the legal mess involved as the property transitions through the foreclosure process, the village doesn't have a wealth of options to employ.
In the meantime, Schaafsma has taken the issue into her own hands.
"I don't know why [the village] can't trap them," she said. "I've been trapping them."
In one five-day period she captured six raccoons and one opossum. One night, however, she grew discouraged when she found one trapped and four surrounding the cage.
"It just seems like there is no end in sight," she said. Schaafsma has been on the block for six years and said the house has been neglected the entire time. The chimney appears caved in; the appearance of the property is disheveled, creating what the neighbors say is a perfect refuge for critters.
"This year, the raccoons have just been terrorizing the yard," she said. "They've dug up the grass and eaten gardens."
What concerns residents most, however, is allowing their children to play in the area. Schaafsma said she or her neighbors often come home at dusk and have to scurry inside to avoid the animals.
Neighbors have been in contact with the health department, but the only response they've received is that the property would be evaluated by an animal control officer and a property standards director. In the past, the property owners were cited for the poor condition of the structure, according to Village Trustee Bob Tucker, but the owners weren't responsive to fixing the violations. The village doesn't typically get involved outside of that until the bank officially takes over, he noted.
The carriage house behind the vacant home currently has a padlock securing its main door, but the overgrown greenery surrounding the home have created a forest-like atmosphere around the property. The fence into the backyard often isn't secured, which leaves the backyard wide open for the animal intruders.
"I am certain there are lots of families of raccoons and opossums," Schaafsma said. "And the door [of the carriage house] is busted open often."
Neighbors hope the property will soon be condemned and torn down.
"I don't think it's repairable," Schaafsma said. "I don't see it at all. It's a mess."
Tucker said the village is hoping to gain access to the carriage house, especially to address any immediate health and safety issues. Still, enforcement remains difficult.
"Sometimes penalties and fines can only go so far," he said, noting that village staff is staying on top of the issue.
This case, Tucker said, may lend itself to future policy discussions about stricter codes for properties that fall into a similar state.
Stefanelli has been tracking the issue with Schaafsma for years and continues to report the issue to the village.
"It's frustrating," she said. She understands that the poor economy has created a foreclosed property issue, but wants something to be done to avoid having other properties affected as a result. As the logistics of property ownership is hashed out, Stefanelli would at least like the lawn to be cut and the property managed.
"It's been unbelievable. [People] are afraid after dark to go out. … We want the raccoons gone. It can't just stay like that. That's totally unsafe."