Monday, December 9, 2019

Council debates, tweaks ordinances to crack down on blighted property; first reading scheduled Dec. 16

Mayor Grayson Vandegrift displayed metal objects that he said had fallen from the building at 116 E. Main St.
The Midway City Council seems ready to pass two ordinances to enforce ordinances requiring property owners to maintain their property, following a final work session Monday night.

Following the half-hour discussion, Mayor Grayson Vandegrift, who has been trying to crack down on blighted property since he took office almost five years ago, said he would schedule the ordinances for first reading next Monday, Dec. 16, and hope to pass them Jan. 6.

116 E. Main was once the Odd Fellows Hall.
To demonstrate the need for the ordinance, Vandegrift showed the council pieces of metal, some of them heavy and some of them sharp, that he said had fallen from the old Odd Fellows Lodge Hall at 116 E. Main St., which has been owned by Ness Almadari of Lexington since early 2016.

He said someone could have been killed by the heavy object, and Council Member John Holloway said likewise of the sharp ones. "I knew somebody who was killed in an accident like this," he said.

"This is the reason for the rush," Vandegrift said, adding later, "That's sort of the crux of the issue to me."

The only issue that prompted disagreement at the meeting was Council Member Bruce Southworth's concern that one of the proposed definitions of "blighted or deteriorated real property" is too broad.

The proposed definition, taken from state law, applies to vacant structures, or vacant or unimproved lots or parcels "in a predominantly built-up neighborhood" and includes seven alternative criteria. One covers property that "has not been rehabilitated and brought into compliance with the housing, plumbing, electrical, fire or nuisance code of the local government . . . within the time constraints placed upon the owner by the appropriate permitting or code-enforcement agency."

Southworth said half the houses in Midway don't meet the current electrical code. Holloway said the code "grandfathers" such houses and doesn't require them to be upgraded to code.

Vandegrift said action against any property requires a complaint and action by the code inspector, and "you would think it would have already been a problem statewide or it wouldn't be in the current KRS," the Kentucky Revised Statutes. He said the ordinance would be enforced by "a reasonable board, which we're going to appoint."

In response to a question from the Messenger, Vandegrift and Council Member Logan Nance said the provision is intended to apply only in cases where a permitting or code-enforcement agency has ordered the property owner to comply and the owner has failed to do so in the time period established by the agency.

Nance said the provision needed to stay to discourage "slumlords." Council Member Stacy Thurman said it would make enforcement stronger, and Council Member Sara Hicks said "It makes people want to do the right things . . . and it makes the town safer." The other council member, Kaye Nita Gallagher, did not attend the meeting.

Holloway, Nance and Thurman were elected last year, making the council more amenable to action on the issue, but the process has required three special meetings and who knows how many private conversations between members. Vandegrift told the council, "I think you all have made good steps to preclude some things that can be done just out of spite."

The council did ask for one last change, a clarification of the time a property owner would be given to comply after receiving a citation. The proposed code-enforcement ordinance says it would be up to the enforcement officer, but "not less than seven days," while the proposed blighted-property ordinance calls for 10 days' written notice. The council agreed both should say 10 days.

If the owner didn't comply, the case would go to a new Code Enforcement Board of at least three members and two alternates, who must have been residents of the city for a year upon appointment. After initially staggered appointments, they would serve three-year terms, be limited to two terms and could be removed by the mayor or a council majority plus one for "misconduct, inefficiency or willful neglect of duty." They could not hold any office with the city or any agency that enforces housing, plumbing, fire, maintenance or related codes.

Vandegrift has said the Code Enforcement Board is the key to enforcement that would stand up in court. The ordinances follow state laws that were passed in 2016 to give cities more power to crack down on blighted property.

In addition to safety concerns, the mayor said dilapidated properties bring down property values and discourage investment by adjoining property owners. He said the sport of the proposed laws is "not to burden those who don't have the means" to improve their property, "but to make people who have the inventory do something with it."

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