Hamilton Fights Blight – Looks to Hold Financial Institutions Owning Foreclosed Properties Accountable For Property Maintenance
With the surge in foreclosures over recent years, Hamilton Township has been forced to combat a number of health complaints associated with vacant properties, such as high grass, junk, rubbish, debris and other unkempt property complaints.
But instead of being reactive, Hamilton is looking to become proactive with a new plan requiring that vacant properties institute property maintenance plans, which the Township Council introduced at its August 21st public meeting.
The new ordinance will require that all vacant properties in the township be registered with the government and submit a property maintenance plan to combat unkempt property issues and blight.
The registration, patterned off of ones in other municipalities like Newark and Jersey City, assesses a progressive registration fee that increases over subsequent years. The progressive mechanism serves as an incentive to property owners — which are often banks and financial institutions due to foreclosures – to revive the property, rather than allowing it to sit idle.
Currently, when Township officials are notified of unkempt property complaints, they must provide due notice to property owners before using Township employees to rectify the problems. Otherwise, Hamilton Township cannot seek reimbursement for the cost of addressing the unkempt properties – which would mean law-abiding Hamilton taxpayers, rather than unresponsive property owners, footing the bill.
So far through the first half of 2012, Hamilton collected over $119,000 in unkempt property liens to reimburse township work to address vacant properties, in addition to the $200,000 from the previous year.
But there have been tradeoffs that are frustrating to both Township officials and residents when addressing these issues.
Beyond waiting until vacant property owners have received due notice for violations and have had a reasonable opportunity to rectify them, Township officials must schedule unkempt property maintenance jobs on weekends so that the routine maintenance of public parks, buildings and grounds, recreational areas and infrastructure, right-of-way areas and retention basins, which Hamilton Township is responsible for, can be completed. During peak summer months, this can lengthen the amount of time it takes to address the unkempt properties, as the high number of these vacant and unresponsive properties creates a back-log of health complaints.
Previously, Township officials had hoped that contacting vacant property owners and financial institutions would yield less unkempt property issues to address, but unfortunately, that has not been the case.
“The Department of Public Works has attempted to contact vacant property owners and illustrate how they could actually save money by maintaining the properties themselves, rather than raking up higher lien costs for the government to rectify the issues,” explains Hamilton Township Public Works Director, Frank V. Ragazzo, who also has years of experience in residential real estate. “The sad reality has been that many property owners and financial institutions have been unresponsive or complacent, forcing us to seek this ordinance.”
In addition, unkempt properties can lead to thorny legal issues for the government, and ultimately, taxpayers. One example is with in-ground pools with stagnant water on vacant properties.
“Stagnant water is a health issue because it attracts mosquitoes and insects; however, in-ground pools present many legal challenges to the government. Some in-ground pools will collapse when water is drained from them. Therefore, if a township employee drains the pool on a health complaint, it would be saddling Hamilton taxpayers with a legal liability, and more importantly, a financial cost,” explains Hamilton Township Business Administrator, John Ricci.
There are also concerns that the longer a property is vacant, without active maintenance and upkeep, the more likely it is for minor issues to turn into serious structural deficiencies – eventually necessitating major reconstruction, and even demolition, that sometimes must be undertaken by the township government in vacant property cases.
“There have been residential homes in recent years that became uninhabitable due to structural deficiencies, and had to be condemned by the Township’s Board of Public Officers. No one wants to see a property get to the point in which demolition is the only option. This ordinance should help make these instances even rarer, because it will hopefully encourage property owners and financial institutions to keep up with maintenance, making our entire community safer,” says Hamilton Township’s Acting Director of Community Planning and Compliance, Engineer Richard S. Williams.
Hamilton is optimistic that the proposed ordinance will finally make property owners more responsive and incentivize owners to maintain their properties, rather than allowing them to languish.