First year proves rocky for Blight Review Board
DARIEN — One year and three blight officers later, the Blight Review Board is putting ordinance into effect, but to unknown results due to a lack of reporting or consistency.
Fire Inspector Nicholas Jossem, who began Feb. 5, is the third blight officer since the review board was officially established in January of 2017.
David Keating, a town zoning enforcement officer, was the first blight officer appointed in April of last year.
“I began in May and was blight officer until the end of July,” Keating said.
Keating, who has been involved with Darien Planning and Zoning for 35 years, said he stepped down because didn’t have enough time to focus his efforts on the job.
Kate Buch, the town administrator, served as acting blight officer after Keating vacated the position until Jossem was designated. She is currently helping Jossem transition into the role.
Specific addresses of properties discussed at the recent March 14 Blight Review Board meeting were not disclosed. The Darien News filed a Freedom of Information request on March 20 seeking which properties have received complaints and what has been done to resolve them. As of March 28 the request has not been filled.
An annual report by the Blight Review Board including “complaints received, warnings issued... fines assessed, cases in which fines were paid, and fines collected” is required to be submitted to the Board of Selectmen by Jan. 1 per the town’s ordinance and has yet to be produced.
“I wouldn’t expect that until sometime after March since their first meeting wasn’t until March 29, 2017,” said First Selectman Jayme Stevenson.
Stevenson said that town officials anticipated a lot of work going in.
“Our first year was going to be pretty busy,” Stevenson said. “There had been an ongoing frustration that we had a lot of complaints by neighbors who were concerned about blighted properties.”
According to the minutes of a Jan. 17 Commission on Aging meeting, James Metzger, a member of the Commission on Aging, said that the board had “started with 30 properties and they had been able to remediate many of the issues” and that “a number of the properties reviewed did not meet the definition of blight.”
Minutes from a Blight Review Board meeting Nov. 29 last year also mention that “over 30 complaints have been received” and that the majority of the properties were “not considered to be blighted properties.”
No specific details have been provided as to which properties have been designated as blight or not and which properties have been notified.
At the March 14 Blight Review Board meeting, members discussed seven active cases of properties designated as blighted.
According to Jossem, there have been two new complaints in the past weeks but only one of the reported properties has met the blight criteria.
“I’ve been to those two houses and I’m trying to get stuff entered into the fire marshal software,” Jossem said. “I can add all the pictures and documents in one file.”
Residents whose property meets blight criteria, such as missing or boarded-up windows, excessive amounts of garbage on site, or collapsing walls or roofs, are given a 30-day notice to respond. Depending on a case-by-case basis, additional time or special consideration may be given to individuals who are disabled, elderly or low-income by the board, according to the blight ordinances adopted by the town in January 2017.
“Sometimes (the property owner) will hire a painter or tell us they can’t have (the changes) done by that time and I’ll be inclined to grant another week,” Buch said, describing a way the board might respond to a case.
According to the town website, the Blight Review Board is comprised of Jossem, Representative Town Meeting member Liz Bacon, Planning and Zoning Commissioner Kevin Cunningham, Human Services Commissioner Holly Hawes, Commission on Aging member James Metzger and Selectman Marc Thorne. Ex-officio members include First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, Director of Planning and Zoning Jeremy Ginsberg and Director of Human Services Ali Ramsteck.
At the March 14 meeting, board members discussed the idea of responding to or updating residents who have reported complaints — which can be filed anonymously — as an interpretation of blight can be a subjective matter.
“If we are going to respond (to residents who report complaints) and say that ‘Yes, we found blight,’ we need to keep it simple,” Jossem said.
All members agreed that ultimately it is the board’s duty to ensure a definitive say on whether or not a property can be defined as blight.
“It’s our judgment and people have a right to continue the process if they want to, but at some point in time we have to make a judgment one way or another to at least get the process where it needs to be,” Metzger said.
Ramsteck said the Department of Human Services can reach out to individuals who may have trouble responding to these notifications due to old age or respective income situations.
“The blight officer will come to Human Services to see if people have problems and we can help reach out to them and help if we can, especially if they’re vulnerable,” Ramsteck said. “People have been taking care of the matter once they’re notified and they have been responsive — it’s a learning process for all of us.”