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Sunday, October 13, 2019

Vandegrift revives proposals to crack down on blight, establish code enforcement board; predicts passage

By Grant Wheeler and Megan Parsons
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

The wheels are again in motion to resolve a longstanding issue in Midway: blighted property.

Mayor Grayson Vandegrift is asking the City Council to pass two ordinances – one new and the other revised – to crack down on property owners who don’t meet city codes. He delivered them to the City Council and the news media on Oct. 7 and said after that night's meeting that he expects them to pass.

The new ordinance would create a code enforcement board, an idea that Vandergrift has struggled to get a majority of the council to embrace. The ordinances got a first reading in 2017, but never came back up for passage. Vandegrift said he wants to have "several workshops" on the issue before action by the council, half the membership of which has changed since 2017. He said Oct. 14 that he would call a special meeting for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, to discuss the issue.

116 E. Main St. may be the most prominent example of blight.
“I do feel like this council will agree, especially with all these code-enforcement boards that exist” in nearby towns under a 2016 state law, Vandegrift told the Messenger. “If you don’t, the circuit court will throw out any appeal because it doesn’t comply with state law.”

Vandegrift said the new law made useless a Vacant Property Review Board that the council created in 2012 under his predecessor, Tom Bozarth. He said in the email that he hopes the council will put the board into effect by the end of the year “if not sooner,” he said in an email Oct. 7 to the council and the news media.

“There are property owners who are taking advantage of their neighbors, their tenants, and the city, and it's high time they be held to an acceptable standard so that no one suffers from another's neglect,” he said.

The ordinance defines “blighted” as any vacant structure or lot that is “dilapidated, unsanitary, unsafe, vermin infested, or is lacking in the facilities and equipment required by the city’s housing or maintenance codes, or has been designated by the building inspector as being unfit for human habitation,” or that meets one of seven other criteria, including three years of tax delinquency, violation of local code or presenting a fire hazard.

Blighted property code enforcement would begin with an enforcement officer, who Vandegrift said should be the county building inspector.  When the officer found a property to be blighted, he or she would give notice to the property owner, with a time period to correct the violations.

If the property owner fails to correct the violations, the inspector would determine if the property is complying with the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances. If not, the officer would refer the matter to the code enforcement board, which would fine the property owner.

The ordinance lays out fines for violations; the first offense for an unsafe and unfit structure is $100; the second and subsequent offenses would be $125 and $150, respectively. If a violator doesn’t measure up, the city can fix the property and bill the owner, creating a lien on the property.

The ordinance would also take advantage of the 2016 law by creating a new class of property, “abandoned urban property,” that could be subject to higher taxes.

Long-vacant house at corner of Higgins and Turner streets
Midway had 89 vacant housing units in 2017, as well as some commercial buildings, so many structures in the town would likely be in violation of the proposed ordinance. Notable examples are the old Masonic hall at 116 E. Main St. and a house at the corner of Turner and Higgins streets that has been abandoned for nearly 60 years.

The proposed code enforcement board would have at least three members, all residents of the city for at least a year before creation of the board, and they “shall reside there throughout their term in office,” the proposed ordinance says. Members of the board would be appointed by the mayor and approved by the council.

The 2012 ordinance for blighted property created a Vacant Property Review Board. Vandegrift said that about a year into his administration, the legislation changed the law on blighted property rules, and “the city was out of sync,” according to city attorney Phil Moloney.

In 2017, Vandegrift made essentially the same proposal he made last week, but had difficulties passing it because the previous council didn’t like the idea of a code enforcement board. Since then, the six-member council has three new members.

Vandegrift said in the email that he wants to hold “several workshops” on the ordinances and to vote on them by the end of the year, “or sooner.”

 “I haven’t whipped the votes or anything, but I can’t imagine there would be a majority against it, especially with the demand for it,” he said. “It’s the one thing I’ve not been able to get done yet that I said I was going to get done.”

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