Vacant Property Ordinance in the Works
Owners whose properties remain vacant for more than a year would pay; those with vacant properties that also have code violations would be placed on a 'nuisance list' and pay even more.
City officials are set to begin work on a law aimed at reducing the number of vacant properties in Easton.
Easton City Councilman Roger Ruggles announced his intention to introduce such a law in August, saying he'd been looking into various other municipalities' legislation and working on drafting similar legislation for Easton.
At Tuesday evening's council committee meeting, he and other officials began exploring how such legislation would work and who it would target.
Ruggles noted that vacant properties often become blighted and/or public nuisances.
The legal distinction between the two terms "public nuisance" and "blight," along with other legal questions, as well as what will work and best benefit the city from a practical standpoint, is what the work group, made up of representatives from all the departments that would be affected along with elected officials, will be tackling.
Ruggles introduced some of the concepts of the probable new ordinance, though they are subject to revision.
"The way this is set up, if a property is vacant (for more than a year), it will pay a fee every year. If the property is vacant and has code violations, they will pay an escalating fee," Ruggles said.
He suggested an annual fee of $250 for vacant properties that are up to code, and escalating fees of $500 or more for properties that are in violation and not being repaired.
A list of 'nuisance properties' or those that are vacant and have building code violations would be maintained by the city, and those on the list would be subject to the higher fees.
"It's not just vacant properties," Ruggles said. "It's also properties that people are living in that have code violations."
Once on the list, not only would the property have to be brought up to code to be dropped from it, but all taxes and any past due city bills would have to be paid and up to date, Ruggles said, adding that the idea is to put pressure on those owners to sell the property if they can't or are unwilling to keep it up to current code and in good repair.
City Planning Director Becky Bradley said she fully supports the idea, but more details of the proposed law will need to be worked out to make it a fair and effective enforcement tool.
While the fee and fine amounts are probably appropriate for private owners, properties that are vacant due to being in foreclosure or owned by banks are particularly likely to not be maintained, she said, and somehow, this needs to be addressed.
"They're the worst," she said, adding that the financial institutions are more likely to be willing to pay fees and fines than making needed repairs or providing for upkeep. "The bank won't blink up to $5,000."
City Administrator Glenn Steckman said the proposal's intentions are good.
"I think it's great because we need people to take care of their properties," he said, though he also noted that there are still many details to be worked out.
"We're going to have to cost out what this model will cost. The city may have to front some money," Steckman said.
He added, "A lot of people may applaud this until they realize they live in a nuisance property."
Bradley also said there will be internal city details to be worked out to accommodate the new law if it is passed.
"We are going to have to figure out how to manage this...There's a lot that goes into this that you just can't do with two people,"
No firm time frame for when the matter will be revisited by the city council, but the discussion indicated it will require a number of work group meetings and sessions before a draft ordinance might be introduced. Likely, this will take at least a couple of months, making the passage and enactment of a vacant or nuisance property law unlikely before the end of the year.
"I would like to get this so that the burden is placed on the property owner, not the city," Ruggles said.