City tackles blight but holds off on fines
New London — The city has not handed out a single blight-related fine in at least a year, a fact that city officials claim has not hindered the success of an initiative designed to address quality-of-life issues.
The lack of any fines was revealed this week during a review of citations for violations of the city’s property maintenance code. The Day had requested a list of all properties cited over the past year and accompanying information as part of a Freedom of Information Act request and a CuriousCT initiative.
The property maintenance code provides for between $100 and $250 fines per day for everything from a wildly overgrown property to boarded-up windows or peeling paint.
Ocean Avenue resident Clifford Marlow, who has filed several blight complaints with the city, requested more transparency in the process and wondered about the status of some of his complaints. He also was told fines were handed out in response to a complaint he lodged against a property at 457 Ocean Ave. because of lingering piles of debris on the property, which since have been cleaned up.
Felix Reyes, director of the city's Office of Development and Planning, who argues against the use of the list to “shame” property owners, maintains that the city does not have a printable list to provide The Day and that the list provided for an article last summer was compiled at the request of the City Council.
He did provide access this week to stacks of manila folders, organized alphabetically by address, that contain blight notices and responses, in the city’s building department.
There are more than 80 active cases, some dating back to 2016, a good portion of which Reyes says are related to the two new ordinances that mandate a cleanup of downtown storefronts and removal of plywood coverings on buildings across the city.
“Remove board(s) from any boarded up window openings and replace with glass in accordance with NLPMC 108.2,” one notice to a Bank Street address reads.
Reyes addressed the lack of fines at a meeting with The Day on Friday. Marlow was unable to attend because of a personal issue but called the revelation of no fines a “bombshell” that added fuel to his contention the ordinances are being enforced piecemeal.
“I don’t get a good feeling hearing there were zero fines,” Marlow said.
Reyes said the system in place is set up to allow property owners to appeal a citation, talk to a city official and get the time they need to make what might be costly repairs to comply with the city’s property maintenance code. He said issuing $100-a-day fines are secondary to the cleaning up of a property.
“Collecting $100 or $1,000 doesn’t fix what could be a $20,000 problem,” Reyes said. “We don’t want to fine people. We want people to comply. The numbers say it’s working.”
When it comes to problem properties, which more often than not are owned by absentee landlords who have not responded to a citation, the city applies what is known as a “clean and lien.” A contractor is hired to clean the property, cut the lawn or perform needed repairs, and the city places a lien, or debt attached to the property.
Records show from October 2017 to present, the city has spent $13,125 in cleanups and placed liens on 18 properties. They include everything from the $125 price tag to remove a love seat and mattress from the yard of a home at 62 Hempstead St. to a $2,625 job to board up windows at a home at 40-42 Eastern Ave. in 2017.
Reyes said the city issued 156 citations in 2018 but there are 439 documented cases cleared that never reached the level of a citation. In those cases, a complaint was made or observed and the blight officer was able to resolve the issue with a phone call or visit.
Blight Officer Kenyon Haye said in some cases it takes little prompting to move some owners into action. There are other properties where the owner simply cannot be reached.
Reyes said he would much rather have a property owner come to the office to discuss options than simply sending a notice of fines. He said calls are now coming in from property owners with plywood on their buildings, asking about what is a reasonable replacement.
Reyes said Marlow has done what any responsible citizen might do, which is notify the city of a problem. He said in Marlow’s case, he also is willing to answer any specific questions. For example, Reyes said Marlow had lodged a complaint about a rotted garage roof at 500 Ocean Ave.
While Marlow has not seen action on repairs, Reyes said the property owner remains in contact with the city and asked for additional time to either repair the roof or take down the entire garage. These types of interactions with property owners are consistent and helping the relationship between the city and owners while at the same time cleaning up the city, Reyes said.
The city will be hiring a new blight inspector soon with the impending departure of Haye, who is moving with his family out of state.