Town’s Blight Ordinance Has Been Effective, But Action Could Take Years
Since it was codified a little over seven years ago, Newtown officials have utilized a local blight ordinance 12 times.
In some cases, the move to use the ordinance against qualified property owners has resulted in the cleanup and correction of conditions that prompted the complaint. In others, it has resulted in or preceded foreclosures or sales of affected properties — also resulting in eventual corrections.
And in a few more, situations surrounding the property, its ownership, or challenges faced by involved property owners have dragged on... and on — with no resolution in sight, according to Steve Maguire, Newtown’s senior land use enforcement officer charged with also enforcing the blight ordinance.
He told The Newtown Bee this week that the resolution of complaints on at least two blighted properties that have been outstanding for years is still in flux.
“I have yet to get in contact with a couple of the outstanding properties,” McGuire said, following the newspaper’s review of every blight complaint file on record. “I am in contact with the new owner of [one property on] Lakeview Terrace regarding cleanup, and a citation hearing is pending for [another property on] Grays Plain Road.”
Land Use Director George Benson has long been a strong advocate for the ordinance, which covers both the Borough of Newtown and the rest of the municipality. Benson was a fixture at numerous meetings involving the blight ordinance’s development back in 2012 and before it was made official in August of 2013.
“At the time, I was explaining that a blight ordinance is another tool we could use, if needed, to address residents’ complaints about certain property conditions,” Benson recalled. “I was happy to see the [Legislative] Council pass it because in some ways, an ordinance can be more powerful than zoning regulations, because it gives us options to [threaten or] initiate fines and other actions.”
A couple of high-profile cases since the ordinance was enacted resulted in the removal of eyesore commercial buildings just off Exit 10 on Church Hill Road and on Glen Road in Sandy Hook’s village center, and the eventual restoration of one of Main Street’s stately homes. In other cases, blight enforcement has spurred the removal of a collapsed barn on Hundred Acres Road, and the planned demolition of a fire-damaged property on The Boulevard.
“We really haven’t had to use it officially that much,” Benson said.
“A few times we’ve been able to communicate complaints to property owners and the issues have been resolved with a phone call,” McGuire added, illustrating the potential for the ordinance, which permits levying fines of $100 per day against less cooperative owners.
In another instance, an Underhill Road blight violation that was apparently ignored or disregarded racked up more than $3,300 in daily fines. When the owner was unable or unwilling to ante up, the property went into foreclosure, and was eventually sold and demolished — eliminating the blight and returning the parcel to the town tax rolls.
A Potent Deterrent
But, as Benson and Maguire each stated, this type of ordinance is most effective when employed as a deterrent.
“A lot of people don’t realize we have the legal power to take action and apply fines,” Benson said. “But our strong preference is to work with the owners. We let them know if they just fix things up, we’ll be okay.”
“I’d say the property owners I’ve had to deal with are 90 percent compliant,” McGuire said, indicating that in a couple of cases, the property owner has been physically or financially unable to resolve the issue, or that, due to transfers, the owner has been difficult or impossible to identify or contact.
“I always try to avoid getting to the point where we have to go to court,” McGuire said. Once legal action commences, he said, resolution could take years, tap the resources of his department, and end up being much more costly to the taxpayer than the violator.
“Some of these cases have been going on since before I was hired,” McGuire said.
According to the ordinance language, a property or owner may come under enforcement action or face fines under the town’s blight ordinance if at least one of the following circumstances exist:
*Conditions that pose a serious threat to the safety, health, and general welfare of the community, as determined by the anti-blight enforcement officer.
*Conditions that attract, harbor, or conceal illegal activity as documented by the police department.
Any premises not being adequately maintained may be subject to enforcement if one or more following conditions exists:
*Contains any building or structure that is open to the elements, has collapsed, or is missing walls, roofs, windows, doors.
*Contains any building or structure that is unable to provide shelter, or serve the purpose for which it was constructed due to significant damage, dilapidation, decay, or severe animal, rodent, vermin, or insect infestation.
*The premises is in the public view and, as determined by the anti-blight enforcement officer, is neglected or abandoned.
According to the ordinance language, enforcement may occur if a premises contains material or equipment that is incapable of performing the function for which it is designed, including, but not limited to:
*Discarded or unused materials or equipment such as unregistered motor vehicles, boats, sporting and recreation vehicles that may be missing parts, not complete in appearance, or in an obvious state of disrepair or decay.
*Parts of the aforementioned motor vehicles, boats, sporting and recreation vehicles and items to include, but not be limited to, household or commercial furniture, appliances, drums, cans, boxes, scrap metal, tires, batteries, containers, and garbage in the public view.
Civil Action An Option
Benson said when a resident contacts his department about a potential blight ordinance violation, they are required to complete a complaint form and then the case goes to McGuire for investigation.
“Sometimes the [object of a complaint] does not rise to the level of a blight violation,” Benson said. “It’s actually got to be pretty egregious. Things like tall, unmowed grass or unpainted buildings do not qualify as blight under the ordinance.”
While McGuire said a couple of complaints have been unfounded — leading him to assume they were corrected before the investigation ensued — others have failed to qualify under the blight ordinance. In most of those cases, the investigation reverts to a zoning enforcement action with its own set of challenges.
“Right now we’re carrying a backlog of 80 to 100 active zoning violations,” McGuire said.
Ultimately, he said, a neighboring property owner unsatisfied with the speed or the town’s ability to affect a satisfactory resolution can take the affected property owner to civil court.
“I’ll tell you that about half the blight cases we’ve handled have ended up in foreclosure,” McGuire said. “In some cases, it’s almost better to wait until the property is bank-owned.”
At least then there is a party involved with the willingness and the means to clean up the blight condition, he added.
Both officials also feel for the complainant, who sometimes gets much more riled about neighboring blight situations than the property owners themselves — or become frustrated with the pace of a blight resolution.
“People expect immediate results,” Benson said. “And sometimes we get them. Property owners do not want to be under the violation, so they clean things up quickly. Other times it can take many years. Like a lot of things we do, it’s always a process.”
That process involves working through a legal punch list of actions, which is why officials sometimes choose to move slowly as well as outside the framework of a legal action.
“We tend to spend a lot of time talking with the [alleged] violator as well as the complainant to try and reach a resolution that satisfies both parties,” the land use director said. “But make no mistake, in the end the violator has to comply — and by then we often have to also involve the building inspector, the health district, and sometimes the fire marshal.”
In one of those rare instances, that coordinated response resulted in a condemnation of a property, which was taken and eventually auctioned off by the court.
To review Newtown’s blight ordinance, visit https://ecode360.com/27490770.