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Saturday 20 September 2014

Landlords left to foot bill after properties used as growhouses

Donal Buckley

Published 01/05/2014 | 02:30

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Landlords can take precautions against their properties being used for illegal drug factories such as this one.

A recent spate of Garda raids on cannabis growhouses shows that some property owners are still at risk of having their premises damaged by drug gangs and cultivators.

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However, landlords can adopt a number of measures to reduce the risk of falling into the drug barons' trap.

While last year's figures show a 25pc drop in the number of growhouses and other related drugs manufacturing crimes, there were still as many as 390 of these crimes committed. It can safely be assumed that most of those crimes occurred in rented properties as the last thing a drug gang is likely to do is put their own properties in the firing line of the Criminal Assets Bureau.

Indeed, in the last five years landlords and investors have found themselves out of pocket with up to 2,500 of those crimes occurring on their premises.

While many of them have been in ordinary houses, some gangs have scaled up to industrial properties around the country especially targeting those landlords who may have had difficulty attracting tenants. It's not surprising that unwitting landlords, who have had their properties vacant for months if not years, are only too happy when a prospective tenant comes along offering to pay cash in advance and appears to be a respectable occupier.

Absentee landlords are especially vulnerable as the last thing the drug gangs want is a landlord who is likely to come around regularly to make sure that the tenant is looking after the building. So they also target properties which are in quiet or remote locations where there are less nosey neighbours.

In recent years, the Garda National Drugs Squad's 'Operation Nitrogen' has raided industrial premises or warehouses in Cork City, Tralee, Drogheda, Newbridge, Athlone, Ardee, Tramore, as well as in Kiltimagh and Swinford in Co Mayo.

In addition a storage depot for equipment used to cultivate cannabis was discovered in an industrial unit in Blanchardstown, west Dublin. Last year 170 significant-sized grow houses were raided and a number of those were in warehouses. As many as 16 of the operations were on an industrial-sized scale with the capacity to generate €88m worth of cannabis a year.

With the recession taking its toll and forcing business closures, it has proved difficult for landlords to attract tenants in the manufacturing and wholesaling sectors. But such owners should think twice before being duped as they could find that they may have to pay more than their mortgage.

Detective Sergeant Brian Roberts of the GNDU says landlords should realise that these industrial scale operations are a reflection of the multi-million euro organised crime gangs that are behind these operations. Some of them will stop at nothing when dealing with people who cross them.

In addition they will do considerable damage to a property. One landlord in Rathangan, Co Kildare, had their property badly damaged as a result of a fire accidentally caused by the growhouse operators.

These gangs are so greedy that they do not believe in paying for electricity and they use high wattage lights as well as air conditioners to grow the plants quickly in case their tenure may be cut short. The cannabis plants are subjected to about 12 hours of light under high-energy lamps which can be hazardous when they overheat. And the overloading of sockets also poses a serious risk.

The gangs usually bypass the electricity meter by hooking up their lighting and heating systems at a point close to where the wires enter the premises. Consequently they will try their amateurish hands at hooking the electricity up to a public supply. In the Rathangan case they botched the hook-up so much that it caused a fire.

In some instances the gangs cut holes in the roof to ventilate the smell from the cannabis and of course those holes are not repaired as they usually leave in a hurry when they have harvested their crops or fear they have been rumbled. Indeed, Det Sgt Roberts points out that the number of premises damaged are more than the numbers reflected in the crime figures detected.

Frequently the gangs remove or reconfigure property fittings. Then when they abscond or are shut down the landlord can forget about lease terms such as reinstating the building into the condition in which it was before they moved in. But it's not just the alterations that may damage the property. Sometimes gardai may need to use force to secure access or arrests and this could result in other serious damage to property.

Not alone may the repairs prove very costly but they could also necessitate decontamination resulting from the use of pesticides and frequent water spillage. Subsequently there can be loss of rent during eviction and repair periods.

Landlords whose premises have been damaged by tenants may also find it difficult to claim insurance or find their premiums are raised after a drug bust.

As well as remote properties drug gangs prefer ones which are unlikely to attract attention or are sheltered by trees or shrubs. Premises with more than one access point are also high on their list in case they need to make quick getaways.

Privacy is important because usually one of the first things they do after moving in is to install blackout blinds or shutters as well as a ventilation system and they don't wish these alterations to attract the attention of the landlord or neighbours curious as to changes in the appearance of the property.

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