At last week’s Board of Selectmen meeting, the Board approved setting a public hearing for Monday, October 22, to consider a draft blight ordinance. The draft that will be discussed at the Hearing is the product of detailed discussion and shaping over the course of five Board of Selectmen meetings this summer and early Fall. The Public Hearing will provide an opportunity for the public to comment on the draft proposal. A vote will be scheduled later this year.
When Pat and I campaigned last year, we heard frequently from residents that they wanted New Fairfield to have the ability to address the blighted properties that appear in our neighborhoods. A proposed ordinance had been defeated three times previously – most recently in 2016 –so this is not an issue we are undertaking lightly.
Blighted properties present threats to health and safety through fire, structural decline, harboring criminal activity, providing a haven for vermin, among other issues. They also have a negative impact on property values in a particular neighborhood. Current New Fairfield ordinances do not provide Town officials with the tools to address the core issues on these properties.
All of our neighboring towns, with the exception of Sherman, have blight ordinances. Recognizing the problems with the draft ordinance that had previously been rejected at Town votes, we decided to discard the old draft and turn our consideration to using ordinances of neighboring towns as a model. We ended up focusing on the Ridgefield ordinance as a good place to begin discussions. First Selectmen Pat Del Monaco customized the Ridgefield ordinance to New Fairfield’s circumstances and we began discussions at September Board of Selectmen meetings of a totally new draft that addresses concerns that have been voiced about previous versions.
The proposed draft defines “blight” in a way that focuses on health and safety concerns, rather than on esthetics, such as long grass. We made several changes to this definition as the result of discussions during BoS meetings, including a number suggested by Selectman Kim Hanson, in an attempt to make it more definitive. The draft provides for a Blight Prevention Board composed of town officials from our Zoning, Health, Fire Marshall, Social Services, Building, and First Selectman offices. This Board will receive complaints and investigate to determine whether a blight actually exists. If the Board determines a property is blighted, it will serve notice to the owner/occupant, schedule a hearing to address the findings, and make a written determination after the hearing of whether a blight exists, including actions required to abate the blight conditions.
If a violation is found to exist, the owner/operator is given an order detailing actions that must be taken within a specified timeframe. If he/she fails to take action, the Board may issue a citation and impose penalties. The Town may also take corrective action on the property and attach a lien to the property, if the owner/operator does not take action.
The intent of the ordinance is to have the Blight Prevention Board work with the owner/occupant to alleviate the conditions causing the blight, just as our various other Boards and Commissions (e.g., Zoning, Zoning, Board of Appeals, Inland Wetlands) work with owners to address problems in those areas. As with these other Boards, penalties can be applied if cooperation is not forthcoming.
Importantly, the proposed ordinance provides for special consideration for those who need it (for example, the elderly, the disabled, low-income individuals) to provide additional time to correct the blighted conditions. Additionally, the safeguard of review by the Blight Prevention Board should prevent the use of the ordinance for frivolous matters.
If an owner/occupant disagrees with the findings of the Blight Prevention Board, chooses not to take action as ordered, and is issued a citation. he/she may appeal those findings to a Hearing Citation Official.
The draft ordinance, like those in neighboring towns, balances the rights of individual landowners to maintain their property in the manner they see fit with those of the neighboring community to be free of the negative impact of a blighted property. As past history demonstrates, this is a controversial issue, but one we feel needs to be addressed in an open, fair manner.
We welcome continued input and suggestions for improvement. We will have at least one Public Hearing, now scheduled for Monday October 22 at 7:15 in the Community Room above the Senior Center, on the draft ordinance before scheduling a vote. Copies of the proposed draft will be posted this week on the Town website (http://www.newfairfield.org) and through our Facebook page. Paper copies of the proposal are available for pick-up from the First Selectmen’s office and will be available at the Public Hearing.
– Khris Hall, Selectman