MW studying ordinance to help deal with vacant homes

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By Alex Wimsatt

    MOUNT WASHINGTON - With countless foreclosed properties left vacant and unsold as a result of the collapsed housing market, properties in communities all over the country have been left abandoned, in disrepair.

    Mount Washington has been no exception and City Councilman Dale Walter felt the numerous deserted, dilapidated properties in the city needed to

be maintained.

    So, during the council’s regular meeting on March 8, he introduced an ordinance to establish a property maintenance code for the city.

    The ordinance was scheduled for second reading and a vote at the council’s last regular meeting on March 22, but after City Attorney Norman Lemme read the ordinance aloud, there was some conflict among council members.

    Walter made the motion to table a vote until Wednesday, March 31, when the city could hold a special meeting to further discuss the ordinance and address council members’ concerns.

    Four people stood up to express their support of the ordinance before the council decided to hold off on a vote.

    Mayor Joetta Calhoun said the council didn’t normally allow public comment after the second reading of an ordinance, but because it was an important ordinance it was allowed.

    Lori Puchino of the city’s Mainstreet committee and Bullitt County’s Operation Bright and Beautiful said she fully supported the ordinance and hoped the council would approve it.

    “We think it would be a large step forward for improving our city,” Pacino said.

    Councilmen Barry Armstrong, Shot Dooley and Gary Lawson voted in favor of the motion to table the vote on the ordinance, while Councilmen Larry Porter and Dennis Griffin voted against it.

    Griffin said that he voted no because he wanted to see the ordinance adopted as it was introduced and he didn’t see that there was anything that needed to be discussed.

    “There’s no reason to put it off any longer. This is something that needs to be done,” Griffin said. “It’s fine the way it is. It’s time to quit talking about it.”

    The primary purpose of the nine page ordinance was to hold property owners accountable for the maintenance of their properties and to discourage mortgage holders from letting their properties fall into disrepair, according to Walter.

    There is no property maintenance code currently in the Mount Washington code of ordinances, few ordinances address property maintenance, and no ordinances address property maintenance as in depth as Walter’s, according to City Attorney Norman Lemme.

    Under the proposed ordinance, the city’s code enforcement officer would be responsible for enforcement and a hearing board would be created to take comments and make final decisions on violations.

    Those found in violation of the property maintenance code would be subject to a civil penalty of a $250 fine. With a civil penalty imposed, the city is required by state law to create a hearing board. The city’s nuisance ordinance, which is the one that most extensively addresses property maintenance, carries a criminal penalty.

    The ordinance would not provide for new personnel to enforce the code, but it stated that the mayor could designate a police officer or officers to perform duties as may be necessary for enforcement.

    Every property in the city would be subject to the ordinance if it’s adopted.

    The responsibilities of property owners and operators is described in five sections: maintenance of exterior or premises, landscaping, reconstructed walls and sidings, general maintenance, and structural and general maintenance.

    These responsibilities include keeping areas that were accessible to the public free of things like dead or dying trees, obnoxiously overgrown landscaping, garbage, broken glass, ice and snow.

    Councilman Barry Armstrong expressed several concerns with regard to the proposed ordinance. His primary concern was that it dealt with things that were already in the city’s nuisance ordinance.

    “I’m concerned that the proposed ordinance is going to be just another ordinance on top of what’s already there and they’re going to be conflicting,” Armstrong said. “My theory is to take this ordinance and combine it with the one already on the books. Dale has some good points, I think there are things in there that need to be addressed. I just don’t

think we need to have two ordinances on the books covering 90 percent of the same things.”

    When the ordinance was introduced three weeks ago it received criticism from Armstrong, who argued that the ordinance violated the rights of residential property owners.

    “I think we may be overreaching telling someone how to care for their property,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got to be careful where we go with this.”

    Armstrong’s was also concerned that the ordinance was not specific enough, citing that the current nuisance ordinance mandated how high grass could grow before it was considered a violation and the proposed property maintenance code did not.

    “If there’s any gray area in the law someone down the road is going to misinterpret this,” Armstrong said. “I don’t think there should be any gray area.”

    In Armstrong’s opinion, the ordinance should be as specific as possible without overreaching.

    “Once an ordinance becomes law you can’t come back and say, ‘No no no, that’s not what we meant,” Armstrong said. “There are things we need to look at that have not been considered. The bottom line is we need to do it right while were doing it so we don’t have to come back and redo it.”

    Armstrong hoped that the council could hammer out all the details to produce an ordinance the entire council could be happy with.

    “Any differences of opinion we have can be resolved. I’m looking forward to coming to an agreement,” Armstrong said. “An ordinance can pass with four votes, but it would be better if it passed with six.”

    Councilman Shot Dooley voted to postpone voting on the ordinance, saying there were things that weren’t addressed in the proposed ordinance or the nuisance ordinance that he would like to see in a final version.

    Despite Armstrong’s concern that the ordinance may be overreaching, Walter insisted that the ordinance was not intended to place restrictions on people’s homes or to violate property owners’ rights.

    “There was no intent to tell people what color they can paint their house or that they have to trim their bushes, that’s not what it says. Folks have nothing to worry about,” Walter said. “The violations would have to get really bad before the city would step in and say you have to fix up your house.”

    Walter said he introduced the ordinance to protect the integrity of the city and to require that properties be maintained so as not to create blight. He was concerned that all the abandoned, foreclosed properties would hurt the city’s image and diminish property values.

    “With this ordinance we can force the mortgage holder to maintain their property,” Walter said. “This ordinance is not to punish anyone, its simply to bring run down, abandoned buildings to a certain standard and hold mortgage holders accountable.”

    Walter said the city didn’t have the power to enforce regulations under current city ordinances.

    Walter had worked on the ordinance over a year before introducing it in its present three weeks ago. An earlier version of the ordinance was introduced last year, but it was tabled so Walter could refine it. Walter revamped the ordinance to address some of the concerns expressed by the council. He hoped the council would support the current ordinance.

    “I hope no one misunderstands this. It’s actually intended to protect private property,” Walter said. “A lot of other cities in Kentucky have maintenance ordinances like this one and the state‘s considering a bill to keep abandoned properties maintained. This needs to be put into place,” Walter said.

    If council members make significant changes to the ordinance when they meet on Wednesday it will have to be reintroduced to the council for a first reading. If few changes are made, the council will vote on it.

    The public is invited to attend the special meeting, which will take place on Wednesday, March 31, at 5:00 p.m. at the city annex building on Branham Way. Those who wish to comment on the ordinance will be allowed to address the council.

    The proposed property maintenance ordinance can be found on the city of Mount Washington’s website at mtwky.org.