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    Friday, March 24, 2023

    More aggressive approach to blight needed in New London

    Our CuriousCT initiative gives readers the chance to ask the questions they want answered. Recently New Londoner Clifford Marlow, who lives on Ocean Avenue, wanted to know more about how the city goes about enforcing its blight ordinance.

    “Where are the reports? Fine assessments and totals? Active cases? Delinquents? Successes?”

    Readers of theday.com, who get to vote on what questions they want answered, picked Marlow’s suggestion. Day Staff Writer Greg Smith, assigned to dig into it, found some things out, but not what we might have suspected.

    Felix Reyes, whose responsibilities as director of development and planning include overseeing blight enforcement, initially was reluctant to open the records to our reporter. Reyes explained his approach was not to list property owners subject to blight complaints and shame them into compliance, but instead try as much as possible to work with property owners.

    That was not Reyes’ call to make. Blight files are indisputably a public record. What The Day or anyone decides to do with those records is their business, not the city’s or Reyes’. The information should have been provided when requested.

    Ultimately, Reyes did give Smith access to the file folders, but in the process the newspaper and public learned the department does not have a database in place to quickly search, cross-reference and otherwise assess the status of blight complaints. That was strike two.

    Then, Smith found, no fines had been issued in at least a year to property owners for failing to comply with cleanup orders. Frankly, we see that as strike three.

    Reyes explains that the city has had substantial success by working with property owners. Rather than beginning a legal fight that issuing fines could invite, Reyes said his department works with property owners to get things accomplished short of issuing penalties. As evidence, he pointed to 439 cases closed by his blight inspector without reaching the level of citations and fines.

    All well and good, certainly. But a look around the city, and through the files — there are more than 80 active cases — shows that approach does not work in all instances. Some folks don’t respond to the carrot and need the stick.

    Reyes, however, suggests he is ready to step back into the box and with a bigger bat. A new ordinance, with $250 daily fines for noncompliance, is targeted at cleaning up storefronts in vacant and poorly maintained buildings. Unless a building is under active renovation, the ordinance prohibits tarps, plywood or other materials to cover windows and doorways, instead requiring windows and appropriate façade materials.

    And Reyes tells us when enforcement begins May 1, it will be aggressive.

    “Don’t board up a building and walk away from it,” he said. “Those days are over.”

    Inspectors also should soon have in place a software system, the same as used by New London’s fire marshal’s office, that will provide a database to better track blight cases, the development director said.

    In the meantime, the blight inspector’s position, recently vacated, must be filled.

    While the city has had some success in addressing blight, it must do better. Blight drags down property values and discourages investment. Reyes says the city has a plan. We’ll be curiously watching.

    The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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