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Landlords eye referendum

October 31, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

A petition drive to take the Hagerstown rental registration ordinance to referendum could force the city to delay for three years the start of the program which would charge landlords an annual fee of $45 per unit.

"We can stop this ordinance by taking it to referendum (vote). This would delay the ordinance to 2005 when the voters of Hagerstown would decide on this issue," Allan Johnson, president of the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County, wrote in a letter to association members.

In less than one week, the association has collected about 1,000 of the approximately 4,000 registered voters' signatures needed to put the issue up for a decision on the ballot, Johnson said.

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He is confident the association, working with builders and developers, can get the signatures needed in less than 30 days, Johnson said.

The 200 association members were given a list of registered voters and told to get at least 20 voters' signatures each, Johnson said. Some already have collected more than 100 signatures, he said.

At its Oct. 22 meeting, the Hagerstown City Council unanimously approved the ordinance, which is intended to improve the quality of rental housing. The money from the rental fee will pay for the city to hire five new inspectors and an administrative assistant. The city currently has four inspectors.

Under the city charter, if 20 percent of city registered voters sign petitions to take an ordinance to referendum within 30 days of the council's approval of the ordinance, the city can't implement the questioned ordinance until after the issue is voted on, Johnson said.

The next regularly scheduled city election is in March 2005.

The council could opt to call a special election to have the issue voted on earlier but that would cost the city about $26,500, City Clerk Donna Spickler said.

Mayor William M. Breichner said he has no objection to the association taking the matter to referendum since it is the democratic process.

The inspections aren't expected to begin until April because the city needs to hire six new employees and train them, city officials have said.

The association maintains the ordinance unfairly blames all rental property owners for the actions of a few bad ones. The city does not realize how angry some people are about the proposal, Johnson said.

Darryl Sword, who owns rental property and the Corner Pub, said he has collected about 75 signatures for the petition drive. About "95 percent" of the people he approaches are opposed to the ordinance, he said.

Hagerstown Chief Inspector John Lestitian defended the ordinance Wednesday.

"This is the most important legislation the city has acted on this year. And it is to address safety and health concerns," he said.

The city changed the proposal in response to concerns raised by the association and will continue to meet with the group to talk about their objections, Lestitian said.

Under the program, properties will be inspected after a license application is submitted. Properties will be inspected every three years or when there is a change in occupancy, whichever occurs first.

Originally, the proposal was for the city to make annual inspections.

The Hagerstown Housing Authority's 1,180 rental units and an estimated 400 rental units that are owner-occupied duplexes or doubles are exempt, city officials said.

That leaves an estimated 7,634 rental units in the city, city officials said. Approximately 20,000 people in Hagerstown live in rental housing, city officials said.

Currently, rental properties are only inspected in response to complaints, city officials have said.

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