Darien to pursue blight ordinance
Though badly run down and unkempt properties are relatively rare in town, members of the Representative Town Meeting will revisit crafting a blight ordinance they hope will not overstep resident property rights.
Members of the Town Government Structure and Administration committee met Monday with First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, Planning & Zoning Department Director Jeremy Ginsberg and town counsel John Wayne Fox, who told the committee the ordinance includes tools currently lacking to effectively grapple with decrepit or unsightly properties.
Stevenson told the committee she would like an ordinance including fines or other sanctions because the town lacks leverage to compel owners to remediate conditions. As a result, a good number of the 20 or so properties town officials believe qualify as blighted have been the focus of complaints since her first term as first selectman began four years ago, she said.
“The properties we know today are the same properties I saw when I came through the door,” she said. “… Sometimes we can get action from carrots and sometimes we can get action by sticks. I think sometimes a modest fine is enough to get an owner to take action as opposed to having a bunch of phone calls from department heads.”
Ginsberg said local instances of situations of blight being fixed often only comes when a property changes hands through foreclosure or a property sale or developer purchases a property and builds something new.
“Darien is fortunate after Superstorm Sandy that most people rebuilt,” Ginsberg said. “….But I think in some cases it is more than pumping $1,000 into your house to fix things, getting some landscaping done, or remove something from the property causing angst in the neighborhood.”
Patrick Keane, a committee member, asked why the town needed an ordinance to expand its enforcement power and wondered why the town hasn’t established more organized records of instances of blight reports among departments.
“I don’t understand what is stopping it,” Keane said.
Ginsberg said the lack of dedicated person to take in blight complaints and evaluate them also results in a lack of a coordinated response.
A Darien blight ordinance proposed in town in 2007 but not approved by the RTM included within the definition of blight conditions such as missing, broken or boarded up windows, collapsing or missing walls and roofs, unrepaired fire or water damage, rodent infestation and broken-down vehicles in driveways or yards.
Frank Kemp, chairman of the TGSA committee, said the committee will likely begin working on an ordinance outlining conditions qualifying as blight, enforcement procedures, and consequences for failing to abate violations.
The committee will likely study ordinances established by 28 other cities and towns in Connecticut, including New Canaan, Norwalk, Westport, Ridgefield and Brookfield.
“To have an ordinance would give town officials the assurance they are proceeding in a standardized way so they aren’t subject to complaints of favoritism or the opposite,” Kemp said.
Stevenson said Tuesday that while some might consider 15 to 20 properties a relatively insignificant number to be concerned about, the lack of a defined process makes it difficult to be effective in combatting real instance of blight.
At the meeting Monday, Stevenson said the town is not looking for the most punitive solutions, and the process might even allow the town a chance to help owners of violating properties to bring them into compliance.
“Our staff does an outstanding job with negotiating with property owners but by virtue of the fact a lot of the situations that were problems four years ago remain a problem shows that for some people the tools are ineffective,” Stevenson said. “I’m very cognizant of personal property rights and want to limit government overreach but by the same token I want to help people in neighborhoods with blight situations.”