City mulls measure for vacant buildings

January 21, 2006|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

Empty buildings abound in Hagerstown, including at least a dozen fanning out from Public Square in the city's business district.

City officials are considering a measure to change that by forcing property owners to pay for the right to keep their buildings empty, though the effort could come under fire by property owners asserting their own privacy rights.

"The association's always been opposed to any type of registration," said Allan Johnson, president of the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County. "It's taking away an owner's right. If an owner wants to leave his property vacant, it seems to be his right. If it's a case where they're going to say, 'Well, you have 120 days to get this place into compliance,' that may not be feasible."

John Lestitian, chief code enforcement officer for the city, said the city's code compliance department is considering developing an ordinance requiring property owners to register for vacant building licenses, possibly for a fee, a program a growing number of municipalities across the country implemented to encourage property owners to find tenants for their buildings. The idea is little more than a concept at this point, and many issues need to be considered, he said.


"If you look around the country, programs vary from not requiring a fee to requiring an extremely costly fee," Lestitian said. "It's really going to be a process whereby we look at what best fits Hagerstown."

During a city council work session Tuesday, council members agreed the program is one they want to consider further.

The City of Martinsburg, W.Va., adopted its licensing program on Nov. 28. According to the ordinance, property owners must notify the city's planning department no more than a month after their buildings have been vacant for at least 120 days. As part of the ordinance, the chief of police, fire chief and code enforcement officials have the right to inspect the vacant properties and determine if there are any safety issues that need to be addressed.

Martinsburg City Engineer and Planning Director Michael Covell said there is no charge for registering with the city, though the city has a right to require property owners to make repairs, and property owners can be fined up to $500 per day for each day they fail to follow the ordinance's requirements.

"It also is a device to make sure we at least can try to protect our city officials," Covell said. "We want to make sure, first, (property owners) understand this is an ordinance that is really in the interest of securing safety."

Johnson said he agrees there is a distinct minority of property owners in Hagerstown that perpetually have failed to maintain their buildings. As with the city's rental licensing program, though, he said he fears responsible property owners will be forced to pay for the failings of the neglectful ones.

Tommy Atha, a Realtor with Century 21 MG Realty, said while he was not familiar with the idea, he believes the city has an interest in looking after its building stock, and he believes some property owners could use encouragement to maintain their buildings. He said he does not want to see the city use the program to regulate matters belonging to property owners.

"I guess it's up to the owner," Atha said. "That's their business, as long as it meets the zoning and regulations of the city."

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