TIVERTON — What began as a routine public hearing by the Town Council about a proposed vacant building ordinance on a recent Tuesday night turned into a rousing debate that sent the measure back for a rewrite.
Opening the hearing, Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz, who had drafted the proposal at Town Administrator James Goncalo’s request, noted the problems the measure is intended to address.
“Vacant buildings discourage development, attract rodents, contribute to deterioration, and are unsafe,” he said, and “one of the big problems is finding out who the owners are and tracking them down.”
Right after Solicitor Teitz finished, resident Roger Bennis criticized the proposal, and handed out his own six-page revised draft of the measure.
The ordinance, he said, “is desperately needed,” but “has been poorly written and creates more problems than it corrected.”
The origin of the ordinance
The vacant building ordinance first came to public light (and Mr. Bennis’ attention) when Solicitor Teitz handed the original version out at the Sept. 9 council meeting.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Town Administrator James Goncalo said he had requested the ordinance “for safety reasons.” He said he is worried that “people would go out and set the property on fire, and if the property is maintained, it gives some sign that the property is being cared for.”
The administrator said later that said he first got the idea for the ordinance after seeing the vacant Bank of America building on north Main Road at the intersection of Robert Gray Avenue, where unkempt and overgrown shrubbery on the abandoned site blocked the view of traffic from the left and created a safety hazard.
With difficulty he located the owner (“who wasn’t from this area”) and put him in touch with a landscaper, and got the problem solved.
That was only one example. “For years I drove around and saw a house on East Road [862 East Road], and I thought what an eyesore that house was,” Mr. Goncalo said. “As I drove around I saw more and more vacant homes.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Goncalo said, “We’re proposing this ordinance as a pre-emptive measure so that when we see some property that needs attention, we’ll have this ordinance to fall back on.”
But Mr. Bennis urged that care should be taken not to violate “the personal and the property rights of individuals. The ordinance does not accomplish that task … The way the thing is written it gives ultimate authority to the building inspector,” he’d said.
“The ordinance must not be used to craft a separate set of maintenance requirements for homes and yards,” he said, that are not carefully written..
“I don’t need someone to tell me to cut my bushes,” he said. “You shouldn’t have some building inspector going around and saying, hey, your grass is too high.”
To which Councilor Pelletier responded, “I don’t think it’s anyone’s intent to lock up our neighbors if they don’t cut their grass.”
As for maintenance requirements for vacant properties, Mr. Bennis said, the ordinance “must be loose enough to avoid creating a set of maintenance requirements for vacant homes that are stricter than for occupied homes.”
Councilor Joan Chabot said, “My opinion is that this ordinance is too broad. It could be used by unhappy neighbors to complain about the house next door.”
She ran down a list of explanations for an overgrown yard or unkempt property. Would the ordinance apply to storm situations, she asked, or to owners away on military deployments, slow sales, unexpected medical situations, winter residents in Florida, financial hardships?
“There are a lot of situations where we could be impacting the residents of this town and not intending to do that.” she said.
Comments at the hearing evoked a reaction from Mr. Goncalo, who said later, “I think the focus of the ordinance was lost.”
It is “not meant for people who are away on vacation or who are hospitalized. It’s not meant for people who live on the property and don’t mow their lawns. The discussion went beyond the ordinance,” he said.
Putting owners on notice
One provision of the proposed ordinance drew particular comment from Mr, Bennis and council members alike. A notice requirement would be imposed on property owners to declare that the property is vacant.
Within 10 days of acquiring a vacant property, or of it becoming vacant, owners would be required to post a notice “on the front of the building,” in black lettering that would be that would be “not less than two (2) inches high” and be “readable from at least 30 feet away,” stating the name, address, and telephone number of the owner the owner’s agent.
“It’s ridiculous,” Mr. Bennis said.
Aa front-door notice, visible form the street, could be more of an invitation to potential wrongdoers than a notice of an unsafe condition to the public in general, several people said.
Later, Mr. Bennis also questioned whether a printed notice, in words two inches high, would fit on a single sheet of paper.
“You don’t need a sign to say the building is vacant if it’s vacant,” said Council President Ed Roderick.
Councilor William Gerlach said he “could go either way” on whether a sign is physically on a building. “But the town needs to know,” he said.
Vacant buildings in town
Town officials, including Mr. Goncalo and Tiverton Code Enforcement Official Gareth Eames, do not know how many vacant or foreclosed properties there are in town.
No town list is kept of vacant homes, or of vacant homes with past-due taxes, or of houses where utilities have been shut off.
Nor do any officials seem to know how long vacant homes have been vacant. “We’ve been frustrated in our ability do do anything about them, because we can’t find the owners in a majority of cases,” Mr. Eames said. He gets about a dozen complaints each year about vacant buildings, he said.
The ordinance was re-drafted by Solicitor Teitz, and will returned to the council for further consideration on Oct. 28, when it was again returned to Mr. Teitz for further review.
The proposed ordinance
The new rules state, in part, that:
• Property owners have the duty to maintain their property in such a way as to not violate the town code or state law.
• The owner’s duty is to “maintain and monitor” their property. They would be responsible regardless of any contract with others (e.g. such as a rental agreement or lease).
• The ordinance would incorporate provisions of what Tiverton Code Enforcement Official Gareth Eames calls “the dirty dozen.” These are 12 sections of the state building code that define what are considered “unsafe conditions” in a building.
Among the 12 unsafe conditions, is a building that is “vacant, unguarded, and open at doors or windows;” accumulations of dust or debris, siding that’s falling away, structural deterioration, property damaged by a storm, property vacant more than 180 days, a fire hazard, sagging of any parts of the building, unsanitary conditions. Unmowed lawn not mentioned.
• Broken windows or doors, that would allow access to the interior, are also a violation.
• Town code enforcement official would be responsible for inspecting properties, and for enforcing the ordinance by issuing notices of violation.
• Beyond that, the town would be empowered to take stepsincluding boarding up the building and passing those costs to the owner.
• A property owner who violates the ordinance is guilty of a misdemeanor for each day the violation continues.
How to tell a house is vacant
Tiverton Code Enforcement Official Gareth Eames has seen so many vacant buildings, he says, that he “can pick them out all the time.”
The evidence includes :
• Overgrown or dead vegetation
• Accumulation of newspapers, circulars, flyers or mail
• Past due utility notices or disconnected utilities notices
• Accumulation of trash, junk, debris
• Absence of window coverings such as curtains, blinds
• Absence of furnishings or personal items
• Statements by neighbors, letter carriers, or passersby
Fears about vacant buildings
The ordinance declares that Tiverton is “facing an unprecedented threat” to its economy “because of falling property values due to foreclosed and vacant dwellings and buildings.”
It declares vacant buildings are:
• “an attractive nuisance to children”
• “a harborage for rodents”
• ” as a place to engage in illegal conduct, frequently including illegal drug-related activity”
• “an increased fire hazard.”
In addition, such buildings:
• “invite the dumping of garbage and trash” because of “unkempt and unsecured grounds surrounding” them
• “contribute to the growth of blight”
• “depress market values of surroundding properties, thereby reducing tax revenues”
• “necessitate additional governmental services”
• “significantly interfere with the use and enjoyment of neighboring properties”
• “create an unhealthy and unsafe condition affecting the public and constitutes an unreasonable use of property and a public nuisance”