Officials learn policing blight takes nuance
DARIEN — Some files contain 30 pages of pictures that show unused cars or discarded material left on unmowed grass. Other files have just a few pages of unfounded complaints.
Five hundred pages worth of documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information request and reviewed by Hearst Connecticut Media show how delicate a situation dealing with blight can be in a town like Darien.
The documents show over the first year of the town’s new blight ordinance, officials have had to deal with several cases of an elderly resident who cannot care for their house anymore to a military veteran down on his luck.
To meet blight criteria, properties have to satisfy two out of the 13 points listed per the town ordinance. Blight officers, documents show, have personally visited the properties to verify complaints against certain properties.
Some complaints are cause for legitimate concerns, while others are insufficient for properties to be considered blighted, Kate Buch, town administrator and former acting blight officer, said.
“I did not expect as many of the complaints to be baseless,” said Buch, who became acting blight officer after the first blight officer, David Keating, stepped down in July, citing a lack of time to dedicate to the job.
Since its inception, the board has received complaints against 34 properties. After review, 18 were considered blight and there are eight active cases, according to Holly Hawes, chairwoman of the Blight Review Board. The other cases have been resolved.
No property owners have been fined. Per the ordinance, a person who willfully violates the provisions may be fined up to $250 per day, though financial assistance may be made available on a case-by-case basis.
Fire Inspector Nicholas Jossem, the third person to assume the role of blight officer, is also a part-time fire inspector and began Feb. 5. Wednesday afternoon, Jossem said he was undergoing training for his new role and had been handling blight cases since he began.
Buch has helped Jossem transition into the role. “Nick has a good personality for (the position) — respect for the law mixed with compassion where appropriate,” Buch said.
Emails and letters show blight officers and Human Services have reached out to homeowners, landlords, tenants and, in one case, a bank, to address situations.
Human Services has taken into consideration the status of particular individuals. These have included veterans and senior residents who are unable to make immediate repairs to their properties.
“I get involved when the property owner is a senior,” Ramsteck, ex-officio member of the blight board and director of Human Services, said. “I would call them first or make a home visit.”
Ramsteck said some blight cases could potentially be considered hoarding, and three were transferred to the fire marshal’s department. Human Services can provide supporting counseling in those instances, he said.
“I think the Blight Review Board is doing an excellent and sensitive job in town,” First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said. “At least a couple of the identified properties include people who have been very grateful for assistance from the town.”
An annual report by the Blight Review Board — which would include complaints received, fines assessed and warnings issued — was required to be submitted to the Board of Selectmen by Jan. 1, per the town’s ordinance. In an update, Buch said such a report would likely be submitted by the end of this month.
“We just want the best for the entire community,” Hawes said via email. “We knew it would be a lot of work for the blight officer.”