After viewing a video of the interior of the former Phelps hospital and hearing testimony for more than two hours, Vilas County Circuit Judge Neal A. Nielsen III ordered a fence be placed around the collapsed roof portion.

The judge also authorized Vilas County officials to inspect the facility without notice to insure all possible entrances remain closed due to safety and health concerns.

“There is no doubt that anyone who enters that building is in danger of being harmed,” said Judge Nielsen during his decision in Vilas Circuit Court last week.

The property is owned by Tom Cat Holding LLC, with Colin Crawford listed as the registered agent. Crawford obtained title for $1 after the former owner “scrapped it out,” removing copper wiring and anything of value, according to Crawford. 

The former Phelps hospital building is located on the east side of Highway 17, facing North Twin Lake, with about 75,000 square feet of area. The estimated cost to demolish the building is $200,000 to $300,000.

Vilas County officials in April 2018 designated it as a human health hazard and there was a default judgment entered in Vilas County Circuit Court on Nov. 19, 2018, with a penalty of $767 that was not paid. Crawford entered a not guilty plea in March 2019 and the case is still pending with a hearing set for Aug. 6.

A special inspection warrant was issued and in May, Bob Egan, director of the Vilas County Economic Development Corp., and Dan Dumas of Kim Swisher Communications conducted an inspection after which the county filed a second citation of failure to abate, according to Vilas County Assistant Corporation Counsel Meg O’Marro, who filed a motion to have a fence erected around the entire structure  to prevent any public access.

“This is a ticking time bomb," O’Marro told the court. “Enclosing it with a fence is the least restrictive alternative.”

Laurel Dreger, director of the Vilas County Public Health Department, testified on a series of orders detailing the property as a human health hazard, “with lead, mercury, asbestos with open holes, broken glass, and it backs up to a school.” 

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Greg Harrold, Dreger admitted she had no knowledge of persons entering the building and made no attempt to determine if the building was adequately posted, closed or fenced.

Dumas testified he accompanied Egan on the inspection of the interior of the building, taking both video and still photos, and gaining entrance via a locksmith with a sheriff’s department deputy present. The video was played in court, showing extensive debris on the floors, broken glass, brick, concrete, soda cans and candy wrappers, and an open elevator shaft.

O’Marro asked Dumas about health hazards he observed during the inspection.

“There are multiple trip and fall risks, glass all over, documented bottles and cans with chemicals, mold, standing water, moss, and I observed black mold,” Dumas said. “There were soda cans, snack wrappers, graffiti and no lighting. In my opinion, there have been people who have entered the building.”

Crawford testified he has no trespassing signs on the property and all doors were locked. He said he put a fence around the area where the roof collapsed. Crawford said he allows the town to use the parking lot for town events. At one time, the town proposed Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) locate its Forestry Division there when the DNR was  told to move out of Madison.

Crawford said he didn’t know if he had any liability insurance for the property, which prompted a remark from Judge Nielsen.

“I don’t think there is an insurer in the world that would write a liability policy on that property,” said the judge.

Judge Nielsen said his greatest concern was safety and health.

“There is no doubt that anyone who enters that building is in danger of being harmed,” Nielsen said. “There is mold, a roof collapse, a ton of debris and potential with other substances. The ultimate plan would be to have the building come down either by Crawford or the county or the economic development folks, or a developer.”

The judge didn’t have a timeline or an answer as to who would bear the cost to remove the building.

“The county has an interest in public health and safety and I could issue a raze order, but the county would have to bear the cost,” said the judge, who suggested there may not have been evidence of entry into the building.

“But we all know what the issue is and what the common good is and that is cooperation,” he said.

The judge said the area of the roof collapse is the greatest danger.

“We expect all doors and windows will be secured, therefore I’m allowing a special inspection warrant to continue,” said Nielsen. “While a continuous fence is an expense not warranted, there needs to be more fencing around the area of collapse.”

Nielsen closed the two-hour hearing with the following statement:

“It’s not what has happened, it’s about a risk to human safety. The video speaks for itself. It is a significant human health hazard issue and I wouldn’t go in there. Nobody should be inside that building.”

The judge then directed the installation of fencing so no one can enter around the entire portion that is affected by structural damage and to keep all doors and windows closed against entry. He gave Crawford 30 days to comply.