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Cities deal with vacant property ordinances

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By Cindy DiFazio

Staff writer/photographer

Houses left empty, abandoned to weather and weeds sit next to well-kept homes with neatly trimmed hedges. Neighbors and city leaders alike have become frustrated by owners who ignore the upkeep of homes and properties because they are vacant.

The Henry County cities of New Castle, Eminence and Campbellsburg have decided to fight back.

In February 2008, the City of New Castle adopted its abandoned urban property ordinance which allows the city to raise tax rates on blighted or deteriorated properties.

City Attorney Joe Yates introduced the idea at the December 2007 commission meeting. The concept was similar to an ordinance passed by Eminence in September 2007. Campbellsburg adopted an ordinance in January 2008.

“This is a rare instance of local control,” Yates said. “It allows municipal corporations to increase the tax rate as incentive.”

At the August meeting of the New Castle Commission a three-person committee was appointed to implement the ordinance. While there are no specific guidelines for appointments, to avoid conflicts of interest, commission members may not be elected officials.

Members of the New Castle Vacant Property Review Commission are Mark Vaughn, Lloyd Peniston and James Murray. N.C. Mayor Judy Diederich made the appointments, which were approved by the city commission.

Diederich said that the commission is still in the organizational stage. “It will probably take a couple of months,” she said.

Diederich also expressed her gratitude. “I appreciate their service,” she said. “They are locally respected and have served the community before.”

Yates said the commission’s duties are to review the conditions of city-identified vacant structures/properties, make a determination as to the degree of blight and deterioration, and make recommendations to the city’s legislative body.

In New Castle, findings would be presented to the city commission. If the commission decides to go forward, the Property Valuation Administrator would change the tax rate.

Property tax rates in Henry County cities range from 17-23 cents per $100 assessed value. New Castle’s ordinance mandates a higher tax rate of $10 per $100 assessed value on owners of abandoned property. Eminence and Campbellsburg’s rate is $5 per $100.

Diederich said the purpose of the ordinance is to get owners of run-down properties to fix the problems or sell the property to someone who will. “Some of these buildings are empty and run-down,” she said. “They can become dangerous.” Hazards such as broken glass, animal and insect infestations and crumbling infrastructures are likely to occur over time.

Diederich cited the example of the Harris property on Cedar Street in New Castle which she said was vacant for years. The city had placed a number of liens on it, but the owners still did not correct the problems. It has since been torn down. “An increased tax bill would have gotten their attention,” Diederich said. “This ordinance might have been a help.”

At the September 2007 Eminence meeting Petitt noted that he first learned of similar ordinances adopted by other communities.

Members of the Eminence commission recently appointed by Mayor Jim Petitt, and approved by Eminence council members, are Rose Martin, Bob McGee and Rev. Robert Eads. Martin and McGee were appointed to the commission in October 2007. Petitt commented that one original member, Kevin Whitt, had resigned and a replacement was recruited. They have yet to meet.

Campbellsburg City Clerk Tish Tindall said Mayor Carl Rucker is in the process of choosing appointees. Tindall noted that two had been identified and a third was being considered.

But will it work?

Petitt, Diederich and Tindall all agreed that absentee owners add to the problem.

Tindall said that two or three problem properties in Campbellsburg are owned by heirs of deceased residents. “They would rather the city put a lien on the property than deal with repairs,” she said.

“I’ve worked with people for a year on their abandoned property,” Petitt said. “They come in and fill out paperwork and still don’t follow through.” He said taxes have not been raised on anyone yet, but expects that will change before the end of 2008.

Petitt said that the goal is to clean up unsightly properties. “Our objective is not to make a dime,” he said. “It’s to clean the property.”

Diederich said that a higher tax bill is more likely to get absentee owners’ attention than placing liens on the property for city services such as lawn-mowing. “Bringing the problem to the forefront of property owners’ minds is the goal,” she said. “Hopefully this will speed that process.”

Petitt said that putting the Eminence commission together took some time and implementation will not happen overnight. “It’s a new program for us and for New Castle,” Petitt said. “I’d rather take a little longer and get it right.”

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