Newtown now has its first anti-blight ordinance, but proposed amendments to a firearms ordinance “are still in play,” said Legislative Council member George Ferguson.
After a lengthy public hearing on August 7 for residents to address both ordinances, Legislative Council members then held their own, nearly 2½-hour discussion, including questions posed to town legal counsel David Grogins, Land Use Director George Benson, and Police Chief Michael Kehoe.
While the council passed the anti-blight ordinance, members agreed that several minor language changes must take place before a vote on the firearms ordinance amendments. Four areas need to include changes and exceptions based on Wednesday’s meeting — the military, ceremonial funerals, shooting toward a backstop, and the ways guns are stowed. They plan to take up the discussion at next month’s meeting.
See language (not including this week’s suggested changes) for both ordinances at Newtown-ct.gov.
Residents and council members all raised concerns with the anti-blight proposal before the council voted 11-1 to adopt the ordinance. During the hearing, resident Loree Ogan said a nearby property had been primarily destroyed by fire. The sight is a “gross devaluation” of her property. No one would buy a home near that property, she said, urging the council to “vote favorably.”
Main Street resident Brid Craddock spoke of the “rights and values of those of us who share a town with blighted properties.” She noted the large crowds that arrive for Main Street events on Halloween, the December Holiday Festival, the Labor Day Parade, and more. She fears that guests will “base their opinion on what they see.” Main Street has blighted properties, she said.
“Blight decreases property values,” she said. She believes the town has a responsibility to protect property values and anticipates “great improvements” if the ordinance passes.
Resident Bill Stevens considered both ordinances saying he has no blight, does not shoot, but, “I want legislators to keep their hands off our rights.” He spoke up for neighbors’ rights “whether shooting or [if] they have old cars in the driveway.” He then said that the “biggest blight in Newtown is Fairfield Hills.” Mr Stevens said, “Before imposing obligations on voters, I suggest you clean up yours first.”
Mr Stevens later said it was unfair for the town to “hoist a blight ordinance onto residents while Fairfield Hills sits there.”
Resident Lucy Sullivan spoke in favor of the anti-blight ordinance, which is not meant to harass people who “don’t trim hedges,” but instead address “collapsing roofs, etc.”
During a brief break in the hearing, several resident wondered aloud whether it was fair to impose a blight ordinance on elderly residents with homes in disrepair.
Ordinance language makes note of special considerations for disabled individuals, elderly individuals, and low-income individuals.
When council discussion resumed before the vote, member Neil Chaudhary said the proposed ordinance was meant to address health and safety, unsound buildings, junkyard-type things, and infestations on properties.
As member Paul Lundquist had said in prior council meetings: “I think this is too far reaching.” Perceptions of blight vary. “Rusted old vehicles could be considered rural charm,” he said. The ordinance “invites the town to look over our shoulders” and disputes between neighbors, for example, could prompt that look, he said.
Mr Lundquist stressed several times that the ordinance, as written, “is good for commercial properties, not residential; I recommend the council consider applying it to commercial.”
Land Use Director George Benson explained that the town already regulated trash and in answer to Mr Lundquist’s concerns, he said, “It’s normal for the town to tell property owners to keep properties within standards.” The ordinance would be in addition “to what we already do.” If a neighbor makes a complaint, “we investigate,” said Mr Benson.
He added, “Junk on the property is already prohibited. This isn’t anything new. The idea behind this is the protection of property rights.”
Attorney Grogins said, “It’s really a lower level of enforcement than zoning regulations.”
“It’s really a last resort,” Mr Benson said.
Council member Dan Wiedemann said something that is decoration to one person may not be to another. A process exists to give a property owner chances to appeal. A measure of judgment is used on the zoning official’s part, Mr Benson said.
Concerns of blight would start with the zoning regulations, “and if it got to a point where we thought blight, and not just a zoning violation, it’s a normal progression,” said Mr Benson.
“If most of this is addressed by zoning, then this feels overreaching,” Mr Lundquist said. He again asked that they consider applying the ordinance to commercial property, but Mr Benson said 90 recent of his complaints are about residential property.
Mr Ferguson said, “At this point it’s a very good ordinance and gives the town leverage to address severe challenges.”