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City supports two ordinances dealing with vacant structures

October 11, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

Property owners soon might be subject to fines and inspections under proposed City of Hagerstown ordinances dealing with vacant structures.

At their work session Tuesday night, Hagerstown City Council members voiced support for two proposals that would require property owners to register and allow inspections of their vacant commercial and residential structures. They would pay fees to register or fines if they do not, according to a presentation by Chief Inspector John Lestitian.

The vacant structures ordinances are designed to give inspectors access to the insides of buildings, Lestitian said. Right now, they only can inspect the exterior of properties, unless owners give permission otherwise, he said.

"Our goal's not to have properties torn down," Lestitian said. "It's to make sure they're weather-tight, they're safe and they're not attracting a nuisance."

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Council members debated whether the fines and fees stipulated by the proposals were appropriate, and whether property owners who are working to improve their structures should be penalized because their buildings are empty.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he believes the owner of a commercial building that is a "work in progress" should not have to pay a fee to register that building as vacant.

Because he said he believed more aggressive inspections would benefit the entire community, Metzner said he was not opposed to paying for the program through taxes rather than through fees from property owners.

"I'm less concerned with the fee than I am (about) public safety," Metzner said.

According to Lestitian, some properties have been condemned and vacant for decades. During a discussion about residential properties, he said about 20 buildings fall under the proposal's requirement that condemned properties be registered. About 100 more have been vacant for a year or longer, he said.

Under the proposals, the cost of registering a vacant property would be $100 per year for residential buildings, and between $250 and $500 for commercial structures, depending on how long they have been empty. Owners would be subject to fines - $500 per day for residential properties and $1,000 per day for commercial properties - for failing to register. They also would have to pay fines for any building violations identified through inspections.

Lestitian said the city could exempt from the fees owners who are working on their properties, or who have built new structures, but have not yet filled them.

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