City investigates vacant property registration

Should the City of Warren pursue an ordinance that would require owners of vacant properties to register with the city?

That was the question put before City Council during a work session.

City Manager Nancy Freenock said staff members are “asking for guidance” and she said that she didn’t want to direct staff to prepare an “ordinance council is not inclined to adopt.”

The premise? The city would enact an ordinance to create a registry for vacant properties throughout the city. Fees included in that registration would be held by the city and used to cover any costs – snow shoveling, grass cutting, boarding up a broken window, for examples. Whether an escrow account that maintains a flat balance annually or an escalating annual fee, the cost of having a vacant property in the city could be increased as a means of pushing vacant properties into occupied parcels.

Code Official Ken Hinton said that such an ordinance wouldn’t add any steps to the blight process in the city but hopefully would “head off some of these problems” and “put the liability and responsibility back on the property owner.”

Freenock said that the idea of the ordinance would be to encourage owners to “maintain what you have” and said that they aim to keep properties occupied.

Terry Williams, the city’s code official and director of the Codes Department, said that 85 municipalities in the state have such an ordinance.

But the structure varies quite a bit.

Williams said she consulted with a few municipalities who have similar ordinances and was told that this would work “hand-in-hand” with other ordinances in the proverbial toolbelt in “work toward eliminating the blight” and an attempt to “stay on top of things prior to getting to that point.”

She identified “two different avenues” council could explore for implementing this.

One would include the city maintaining an escrow account for each of the vacant properties on the registry. Citing Johnstown as an example, owners pay $750 when they register their vacant property. $50 is used for administration and whatever is spent by the city in maintaining the property would need to be replaced up to $750 going into year two.

Williams said the escrow model would require a “very active role from the Finance Department and from our department.”

Another option Williams identified would be to implement a flat fee that “can go up to whatever it is you would like” in subsequent years a property remains vacant.

“The idea is to incentivize owners to sell their properties rather than let them sit there,” Freenock said.

She added that the city currently places a lien on any property where it undertakes this service but noted that the lien disappears when the property moves through the tax sale process.

Williams said the idea is to “discourage properties from sitting and languishing.”

Mayor Maurice Cashman asked what type of success these municipalities have had.

Williams said that the municipalities she consulted have had “great success” with foreclosed properties because the mortgage companies are quick to have their properties addressed.

Referencing Johnstown, though, she added that “they use a reactive approach to this rather than a proactive approach. They are like us, a small department.

“There are criteria that have to be met to be vacant or abandoned,” Williams explained, indicating that the length of time before a property would be considered vacant is up to the city.

“Some say 45 days,” she said. “Some say a year. It depends on what the city would like to see.”

Maintained properties while the owner winters in Florida, properties marketed for sale or properties with a connected utility are some of the examples of what can be excluded.

“There’s a very wide range of what we would consider,” Williams said, indicating that properties where the owners provide contact information for someone maintaining a vacant property “don’t necessarily have to be part of this.”

Cashman asked how the city would find these properties.

Williams said an initial marketing push could be undertaken in conjunction with the properties that city staff know to be vacant.

“We’d all have to be understanding that there are limitations to this and that’s ok,” she explained, “because we have limited resources. We can only do so much.”

Cashman suggested that the Blighted Property Review Committee and Redevelopment Authority should be consulted and their input provided to council.

“They’re more attuned to the problem,” he said.

Williams said another benefit would be valid contact information for people maintaining or owning vacant properties.

“What this seems to do is put people on notice,” she said. “”The city can no longer afford to ignore the high level of maintenance issues with vacant properties in the city.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Cashman said, though reiterating he wants to hear from the BPRC and RDA. “We’ll mull this over.”

“There is a certain percentage that will comply,” Freenock said.

Councilman Gregory Fraser asked what would happen if someone didn’t pay the fee and Williams said there are fines included.

“Johnstown cautioned it’s not perfect,” Williams said. “(It’s) not going to solve everything. (You are) going to have a certain percentage that aren’t going to apply. You do the best that you can.”

Councilman Paul Giannini asked two questions – Is there a problem in the city with vacant properties and would such an ordinance help staff do their jobs.

Staff indicated in the affirmative to both questions.

Per Cashman’s request, the initiative will be taking to the BPRC and RDA and he asked Williams “to put together an ordinance that (she) would support.”