Town officials consider funding for blighted properties
Published 1:05 am, Friday, January 29, 2010
Blight Prevention Officer Jim Gilleran knows that not every blighted property is created equal. Some people are able to clean up their mess, but for whatever reason, choose not to. Others, because of their advanced age or limited income, cannot tidy up or make improvements to their home's exterior.
Gilleran is supportive of funding for those who fall into the latter category and he expressed this sentiment at Monday night to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).
RTM member Jim Walsh agreed that the blight ordinance should be funded and others who subsequently spoke were also supportive.
First Selectman Ken Flatto told the Fairfield Citizen he's open to the idea, provided it is "only done in situations where it would be used in a home situation with major financial or medical hardship."
He added, "What I wouldn't want to see is some money set aside for a situation where someone's trying to use the town to try to do their work instead of taking care of their responsibilities."
Gilleran said any town monies used to clean up a property would ultimately be returned through a lien. In other words, if the town invested X dollars in a clean-up, a lien for at least that amount would be placed on the property. Liens can be settled at any time but must be satisfied before a sale.
While it is very early in the discussion phase, funding for blight clean-up wouldn't have to add to the town's budget, according to Flatto. Rather, fines collected from blight, currently being directed to the town's general fund, could instead be put in a separate account for addressing blight properties.
If a fund is going to be set up to assist in correcting blight, Flatto believes the beneficiaries of such funds should be required to submit paperwork showing that they are of a certain income. However, Flatto said it will be up to the RTM to decide what the income limit should be.
"The town shouldn't be doing this unless it's very well defined," Flatto said.
In the past, when a property needed to be cleaned up, Gilleran has gone before the Board of Selectmen and asked if they could find the funds to board up, secure or clean up a property. Gilleran said sometimes his request is granted, sometimes it is not, and that is why he desires a separate fund for blight clean-up.
Gilleran said in this economy, many people are not working, or get by on limited income, and they simply do not have the funds to address the blight. When faced with the choice of feeding their children or paying to have junk removed off their property, they go with the former, he said.
Monday's discussion about possibly funding the blight ordinance grew from Gilleran's annual report to the RTM regarding the blight ordinance, which went into effect in 2005.
In 2009, $51,000 in fines were collected. Also last year, 24 new properties were added to the Blighted Property Actions List, bringing the total number to 35. Of the 24 new properties on the list, 18 of the owners contacted responded and made sufficient repairs to the properties. Eleven are still pending.
Three of the properties on the list currently owe fines, which have stopped accumulating per orders of the Board of Selectmen. The fines on these properties total $263,000. The three properties are 65 Commerce Drive ($63,700), 26 Dalewood Ave. ($110,300) and 346 Halley Ave. ($89,300). These are the only properties on the list that the town has liens against.
The Board of Selectmen stopped the $100-a-day fines on 65 Commerce Drive after an old commercial building, that had illegal dwellers, was leveled; it stopped the fines on 346 Halley Ave. after the woman who lived there died. Also, Gilleran said, a daughter of the deceased saw her child taken away by DCF after an oil spill in the basement didn't get cleaned up for months.
Gilleran said he requested funds to clean it up, but the Board of Selectmen turned it down. While the oil tank spill was an unfortunate situation, Gilleran said he can only issue fines regarding visible blight and he noted there is still a dumpster on site, an old motorcycle and items reportedly moved to the property by a relative are outside covered with tarps. Compliants about the property came from four neighbors of a nearby condominium complex.
The third property, 26 Dalewood Ave., spurred complaints from a Grasmere Avenue neighbor. The Dalewood property, Gilleran said, has actually been on the Blighted Property Actions List for three years and was in "condemnation to begin with."
"They kind of remedied the condemnation part of it but then it became blight," Gilleran said.
At one point, there were three unregistered motor vehicles and the roof of a garage was caved in.
"We made them demolish the garage," Gilleran said. There was also junk and debris in the yard, the home's paint job was in disrepair, the rear corner of the house is covered in Ivy (which holds moisture) and there were broken windows in the area of the front porch. The windows aspect was not fixed for a year and a half.
The property owner remedied the window situation by removing them, Gilleran said. Also, a chimney on the top of the house was caving in. The fines stopped when the owner partly painted the house and scraped some paint off another portion of the structure, and moved some of the cars and fixed the home's chimney. However, the roof was not fixed, Gilleran said, and "there's still an unregistered car there."
Gilleran said he is planning to ask the Board of Selectmen to reinstate the fines.
"I haven't been paid. I asked for the house to be foreclosed on," he said.
However, the Board of Selectmen chose not to pursue foreclosure. Gilleran can have liens placed against properties and request foreclosure proceedings to commence, but ultimately, that's where his power ends. The Board of Selectmen, said Flatto, has the authority to forgive fines, reduce fines or make deals.
"When a blight fine becomes a lien it makes it a legally-ordered fine, which we can then decide," Flatto said.
Flatto said the Town Charter outlines this authority.
Gilleran said he only issues fines upon complaint of a property by someone. He doesn't go out looking for blight, because if he did, he said, it would be a full-time job. Gilleran, in addition to being the blight prevention officer, is also the town's chief building official.
Gilleran said some people are hoarders who can't help what they do; others can't afford to fix their property, especially in today's economic climate.
"We need to try to figure out ways to help them out," he said.
The RTM is expected to put forth a proposal later in the year to fund the blight ordinance.