Lynn court residents complain of 'blight"™
A Lynn Court couple submitted a formal complaint to the Board of Selectmen last month, regarding a "vacant" property next to their residence. The letter, penned by Libby and Bill Stowell of 25 Lynn Court claims the adjacent property at 23 Lynn Court is "in a state of severe disrepair and decay."
"The house has shifted away from the chimney, creating a dangerous situation should either structure fall," the June 10 letter states. "The back porch is crumbling, the roof is rotting, and the gutters have fallen off the house. The property has been taken over by weeds, saplings, and other vegetation, making a haven for wildlife and vermin."
It's not the first time the Stowells have written a letter to government officials about the property, which is owned by Christopher Sardone of Sardone Builders in Greenwich, according to Libby Stowell.
The house was vacant for two years before Sardone purchased the property, and has remained vacant in the three years since the transaction, Stowell said. And while she said town officials have been very responsive to the current situation -- she said they contacted Sardone after her last letter, and urged him to clean up the shrubbery, which he has -- she is still frustrated by the fact that Darien does not have a blight ordinance.
"It's very frustrating. It's surprising because there are neighboring towns that do have blight ordinances, and to have something to this extent -- it isn't extenuating circumstances," Stowell said.
"I think they should get a blight ordinance. It has certain stipulations. I don't think you can go after somebody who has trouble keeping up a property, but when you have an abandoned property owned by somebody not doing anything about it, there should be something about that," she said.
"Neighbors are concerned it's pulling down their property values and the more uncared for it gets, the more obvious it is," Stowell said. "It's become a very obvious nuisance on the street."
The Town of New Canaan has had a blight ordinance on the books since October 2006. While the ordinance states that its purpose is to "define, prohibit and abate housing blight in order to protect, preserve and promote public health, safety and welfares, and to preserve and protect property values," Blight Officer Brian Platz said he has "a couple issues" with it.
"What I've found to be the case many, many times is that more often than not, feuding neighbors use the blight ordinance as a weapon to get at each other," Platz said, "As the enforcement officer, I get sucked into this vortex of Hatfields and McCoys."
The vast majority of blight complaints directed to Platz fall into that category, he said.
"I probably get about six complaints a month, and maybe one in six is actionable," Platz said.
According to the New Canaan ordinance, blight is defined as "any condition or combination of conditions in public view upon any residential premises that tends to devalue real estate, or that is a negative influence upon the neighborhood or upon any neighbor's use and enjoyment of his or her own property, due to, characterized by, or reflective of neglect, decay, deterioration, disrepair, rotting, overgrowth, infestation, dilapidation or failure to maintain."
It's a definition that leaves a lot of gray areas, Platz said.
"The blight ordinance defines blight as a number of different things. It also says that blight, in a nutshell, devalues a neighboring property," he said. "If you live in a 20,000 square-foot home on Ponus Ridge Road, a premiere address, and I live right next to you in a modest cape, even though my home might be immaculately maintained, the fact that my home his only 1,500 square feet instead of 20,000, I devalue your property. Is that blight?"
What if a homeowner paints his house a color the neighbors don't like, Platz asked.
"It's America. They can paint their house any color they want. I don't care if 99 out of 100 people agree that it's an ugly color. It doesn't matter. It's still America," he said.
"There's this little known document called the U.S. Constitution, and I'm pretty darn sure that in the Constitution it says a man's home is his castle," Platz said. "We have a couple [properties] that are rundown believe it or not, but it's their property. Within reason, we just shouldn't be regulating that. Where do we stop? Do we tell you what color your house can be? How big your house can be?
"The enforcement of it is a slippery slope," Platz said.
It's that slippery slope mentality that kept Darien's RTM from passing a blight ordinance several years ago, according to Selectman David Bayne, who was on the town's RTM when the proposed ordinance was voted down.
"My recollection of the discussion on the floor of the RTM was that people were concerned about the subjective nature of what constitutes blight," Bayne said Wednesday. "How do you define it? There was a concern that if you don't mow your lawn for a couple weeks, are you going to be confronted with petitions from the neighbors?"
No one in Darien's 100-member legislative body had a good answer to that question at the time, Bayne said, and the ordinance was defeated.
The town still does not have a blight ordinance, nor does Westport. But other Fairfield County municipalities, such as Danbury, Stamford, Fairfield and Wilton do.
In Wilton, the role of blight officer is shared by the zoning enforcement officer, building official and health director, according to the Town's Director of Planning and Land Use Management, Robert Nerney.
"It's sort of an advantage in that the decision making doesn't rest on the shoulders of one person. We're able to look at these cases on a collaborative basis, and I think in that sense it worked well," Nerney said.
"I guess from my own personal point of view, the mission has always been to try to effectuate compliance, and we don't try to look at things so much from a punitive perspective. Our mission is to try to keep properties in a state of compliance, but I think it should be stressed that a blighted property really is a property that has reached the level that poses a danger to people who might enter the property and to the neighborhood as well, in terms of safety, property values and so forth," he said.
But blight doesn't exist in a vacuum, according to Nerney.
"It is more often a symptom of other problems," he said. "We have, on occasion, even alerted our social services agency to make contact with people. There's oftentimes underlying reasons that may not be immediately known ... depression, substance abuse, things of that nature. Those issues do come up in Fairfield County as they do in the rest of the country."
Disability and impaired mobility of property owners can also contribute to blight, as well as financial problems.
The owner of the property at 23 Lynn Court, Sardone, said he "can appreciate that people find it offensive that the brush is overgrown."
"Like many contractors, this is my first attempt at building a house on speculation and selling it," Sardone said Wednesday. "My timing was awful, and I lost my financing, so I'm just trying to carry the property to get out of this bad housing market."
His original intention upon purchasing the property was to tear down the house, he said. Now he's in the proves of trying to clean it up to rent it.
"Unfortunately, my hands are ties. I don't have the means to build there, which I would very much like to do. My intention is to keep it as tidy as I can moving forward, and be more conscientious about that," Stowell said.
"It's a hard time. It's an unfortunate situation. I don't have the means to do what would make these neighbors happy. It's not because I don't want to. It's because I can't," he said.
Darien's blight ordinance was debated before the economic downturn, in what Bayne described as a "different time in Darien."
"With the economy being what it is now, versus what it was then, people had a hard time envisioning that they would let their property go," he said. "But in this day in age, it obviously has happened."
But with so many "gray areas," defining and enforcing blight in a new economy continues to be a challenge for Platz.
"It's a slippery slope," he said. "A very slippery slope."