Shedding light on New London's blight enforcement

New London — Clifford Marlow doesn’t make a habit of driving around the city with a clipboard and camera to document properties not adhering to the city’s property maintenance code.

But he is a homeowner who takes pride in his Ocean Avenue property and his annoyance led to frustration at the blighted properties he was passing day in and day out on his way home from work.

Marlow viewed the city’s renewed blight enforcement activities as a chance to act on some of these eyesores that he says bring down surrounding property values.

He suspects he’s become something of a thorn in the side of city officials, as he filed several blight complaints over the past year. He says those complaints have been met with mixed results: Some properties are now cleaned up but his follow-up questions about others remain unanswered. It got him wondering about a lack of public accountability.

“These guys are pretty secretive about their work. It seems to be done at their discretion, so there is some frustration on my part because of the lack of action,” Marlow said.

Marlow submitted a question as part of The Day’s new initiative, CuriousCT, asking for more transparency in the city’s blight enforcement. “Where are the reports? Fine assessments and totals? Active cases? Delinquents? Successes?” he asked. Readers in an online poll agreed they wanted the answers and The Day attempted to oblige.

Like Marlow, The Day had mixed results, obtaining some numbers but denied access to a full list of the properties cited for blight.

Marlow also thinks his complaints about commercial advertising — in the form of signs placed on public property — mostly have fallen on deaf ears. He finds the day-glo yellow and black Laundromat Express signs placed in front of the former Beth El Synagogue on Ocean Avenue to be particularly disturbing.

Felix Reyes, the city's director of development and planning, said during a recent interview that he will make blight citation data available upon request to someone who is interested. However, he says he refuses to “shame” property owners by publicizing a list of offenders and leading people to view blight inspector Kenyon Haye as a bad guy.

Reyes said situations differ from case to case. There are residents with mental health issues, families with hardships, absentee owners and just a lack of education as to what is blight.

“I’ve had a father working two jobs who got a citation because he doesn’t keep his grass cut. There’s a hardship there. Someone may be struggling to pay their mortgage and out of work and yet we’re telling them you have to replace your roof or windows,” Reyes said. “It does no good for the city to put out public lists. This is about setting standards.”

The Day has a pending Freedom of Information request for information on properties cited for blight and contends the information is public. The city has yet to respond with justification for not releasing the information — which it did release last year for a similar report.

Marlow said there was no secret who owned the severely blighted former florist business and coffee shop at 369 Ocean Ave., which sat vacant for years with boarded-up windows and broken glass, surrounded by overgrown brush and discarded furniture. The property was purchased in 2016 by CDP Properties LLC, whose agent is listed in public records as David Preka.

The property was a target of one of Marlow's complaints. “Please find the attached picture of 369 Ocean Avenue,” he wrote to the city in January. “It’s surprising to me that this neighborhood eyesore could exist in such a state of disrepair for so long in plain view and directly across from one of New London’s premier and heavily trafficked institutions, Lawrence and Memorial Hospital.”

It’s unclear if that particular property owner faces fines. The Day also is waiting for information related to the number and total amount of fines handed out over the past year and the number of cases that have been appealed or gone to a hearing.

The city's blight ordinance allows for fines of up to $100 a day for general violations and up to $250 a day if the city sends a case to Superior Court for a criminal prosecution.

Reyes said the number of fines is small because the city is not trying to use them as an income source, instead using them mostly to educate and prompt property owners to action. He said the city issued 156 citations for violations of the property maintenance code in 2018.

The leading problem, with 55 percent of the citations, was garbage and refuse, things like a mattress left on the front lawn when a tenant moved out. Twenty five percent of the citations fall under the category of protective treatments, or things like peeling paint and broken windows. Weeds and overgrown properties made up 15 percent of the citations.

In addition to the citations, Reyes said Haye has closed 439 cases that never reached the level of a citation. Complaints were addressed with a simple phone call or site visit — the city's preferred method for solving a problem.

Haye said it often only takes a phone call when someone is around. It's the absentee landlords that are at times hard to find.

There remain 40 open cases that involve someone going through the appeals process or perhaps at the beginning stages of addressing problems on their property.

So far in 2019, the city has issued 40 notices to property owners regarding new “storefront standards for commercial properties" and so-called plywood ordinance that went into effect on Feb. 7.

Enforcement starts on May 1 for the ordinance that prohibits unsightly storefronts on vacant buildings or those under construction. It’s designed to clean up the business district, address neglected properties that have things like blue tarps in the front windows, and imposes fines of up to $250 a day until a problem is corrected.

A revision to the property maintenance code will give property owners 30 days to remove plywood covering on vacant structures and replace boards with "substantially weatherproof material and have the exterior appearance of the openings' original design...”

Reyes expects that some of the historic properties, such as the Capitol Theater on Bank Street, while still vacant, will be unmasked, revealing a bit of their original luster.

Haye is taking an inventory of properties that are likely to be in violation of the new blight updates and is speaking with property owners.

Reyes said it has served to inspire owners to come in and talk. “We’re not asking you to spend millions of dollars. If you have a storefront that’s just messy, clean it so that when somebody’s walking by, it’s not a blighted presence,” he said.

Reyes said the city is also performing an inventory of its own properties to determine which ones would violate the ordinance, such as places like the now vacant Thames River Apartments on Crystal Avenue.

As for residential property owners, Reyes said, “at the end of the day, no one is going to bother you if you cut your grass and maintain your property.”

g.smith@theday.com

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