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HPPR Health, Education & Welfare

Five Syringes Is Five too Many

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Layton Ehmke
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While abandoned farmsteads are quite common and are one of our links to the past, at the same time, they represent a link to the present that I’d like just as soon to go away.

Here on our farm in Lane County, we’ve got a number of those farmsteads complete with abandoned farm homes, outbuildings and barns. In several cases, we’ve burned or buried them. And judging by a recent experience, we’ve got more work to do in that department.

At one of these farmsteads, we’ve had a fair number of trespassers, frequently during pheasant and deer hunting seasons. But we’ve also noticed activity inside the farm house. That includes such things as obstructions from windows being removed and windows being opened. And just recently, I found 5 syringes lying on the kitchen counter.

The Lane County Sheriff‘s office pointed out the obvious: the farm house is now being used as a crack house for drug activity. They were also very explicit about the drug users involved. Meth users in particular can be extremely paranoid, dangerous and unpredictable. Heroin could also be involved. In short, if you find people trespassing on your property, do not approach them.  Call the sheriff.

These people could be local residents or they could be from out of county. Coincidently, an oil well had just been drilled nearby. And again, the sheriff department said some oil field workers are frequently involved with drug use.

But as property owners, do we have liabilities in cases like this? Attorney Robert Coykendall with Morris Laing in Wichita, says it is highly unlikely that you would ever be liable to someone using your property without your permission. In Kansas, the duty that a property owner owes to others depends on the status of people that come onto the property. For example, you need to take reasonable care to protect customers from harm that come into your business establishment to transact business. These people are invitees or licensees.

“For people who are on your property without permission or consent, your duty is less. As to a trespasser, your obligation is to refrain from willfully, wantonly or recklessly injuring them. In other words, do not set a mantrap for trespassers,” he says.

Coykendall also pointed out that there are some actions you can take to lessen even this small risk. “First, I’d suggest that “no trespassing” signs are a good idea. Also you must enforce that restriction by calling law enforcement to run offenders off.. Second, make reasonable efforts to secure the property—like locking doors. Third, eliminate any obvious hazard that you know about. And finally, take extra care if the property is in a location near children. There is a doctrine that is designed to protect kids and it can make property owners liable for owning dangerous structures that attract kids. If you know kids want to play in a dangerous area, then there may be exposure for maintaining an “attractive nuisance”.

“All in all, however, there is very little possible liability as to abandoned rural homesteads,” he says.

So what do you do about these farmsteads? I thought it was interesting in that a number of years ago, residents of North Dakota had a statewide discussion about elements of this exact issue. On one hand, certain residents felt strongly that these old farmsteads, homes and barns were an important part of their history and should be preserved. They also make the countryside more interesting while providing habitat for wildlife.

Other residents felt the links to the past were barriers to the future. The farmsteads should be burned to the ground and converted to cropland. Without the farmsteads, sure the countryside might appear more bleak, barren and open, but you make more money that way and you don’t have to farm around these obstructions. Neither do you have to worry about trespassers.

In our case, what we need to do is obvious. Now that we’ve got a crack house on the farm that is being visited by undesirables who may also be dangerous, that house needs two things: a gallon of gas and an Ohio Blue Tip.

But while gas and matches are cheap, is this the preferred way to clean up the neighborhood? Or is it even legal to burn down these structures?

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment regulations on open burning pointed me to Jack Bradstreet, Lane County Fire Marshall. Louise and I met Jack at the crack house for an inspection of the property. He explained that his and county approval is needed for our proposed control burn. But he also needed to see if there were any active gas lines or other environmental hazards present like asbestos.

Interestingly, while Jack was in the army, he served in a military fire-fighting unit. He also pointed out that on several occasions he and other soldiers stumbled onto meth labs while they were on training exercises in the State of Washington woods. “These labs were being guarded by armed personnel—and they shot at us.”

Consequently, Jack says there is no question that these crack house locations need to be done away with because they can be hubs for drug users as well as squatters. He also emphasized that any people you come across at these places can be very dangerous. “So rather than taking any action yourself, call the sheriff.”

Jack agrees that the house needs to go and he is scheduling it for a training exercise for Lane County fire fighters. The fire department will also be on standby in case the fire gets out of control. So now all we need is a stretch of wet weather or a good deep blanket of snow,,,and we’ll have one less thing to worry about.