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Blight enforcement is 'slippery slope"™

Published 1:12 am, Friday, July 16, 2010
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The Town of New Canaan has had a blight ordinance on the books since October 2006. While the ordinance states that its purpose is to "define, prohibit and abate housing blight in order to protect, preserve and promote public health, safety and welfares, and to preserve and protect property values," Blight Officer Brian Platz said he has "a couple issues" with it.

"What I've found to be the case many, many times is that more often than not, feuding neighbors use the blight ordinance as a weapon to get at each other," Platz said, "As the enforcement officer, I get sucked into this vortex of Hatfields and McCoys."

The vast majority of blight complaints directed to Platz fall into that category, he said.

"I probably get about six complaints a month, and maybe one in six is actionable," Platz said.

According to the ordinance, blight is defined as "any condition or combination of conditions in public view upon any residential premises that tends to devalue real estate, or that is a negative influence upon the neighborhood or upon any neighbor's use and enjoyment of his or her own property, due to, characterized by, or reflective of neglect, decay, deterioration, disrepair, rotting, overgrowth, infestation, dilapidation or failure to maintain."

It's a definition that leaves a lot of gray areas, Platz said.

"The blight ordinance defines blight as a number of different things. It also says that blight, in a nutshell, devalues a neighboring property," he said. "If you live in a 20,000-square-foot home on Ponus Ridge Road, a premiere address, and I live right next to you in a modest cape, even though my home might be immaculately maintained, the fact that my home has only 1,500 square feet instead of 20,000, I devalue your property. Is that blight?"

What if a homeowner paints his house a color the neighbors don't like? Platz asked.

"It's America. They can paint their house any color they want. I don't care if 99 out of 100 people agree that it's an ugly color. It doesn't matter. It's still America," he said.

"There's this little known document called the U.S. Constitution, and I'm pretty darn sure that in the Constitution it says a man's home is his castle," Platz said. "We have a couple [properties] that are rundown, believe it or not, but it's their property. Within reason, we just shouldn't be regulating that. Where do we stop? Do we tell you what color your house can be? How big your house can be?

"The enforcement of it is a slippery slope," Platz said.

It's that slippery-slope mentality that kept Darien's RTM from passing a blight ordinance several years ago, according to Darien Selectman David Bayne, who was on the town's RTM when the proposed ordinance was voted down.

"My recollection of the discussion on the floor of the RTM was that people were concerned about the subjective nature of what constitutes blight," Bayne said Wednesday. "How do you define it? There was a concern that if you don't move your lawn for a couple weeks, are you going to be confronted with petitions from the neighbors?"

No one in Darien's 100-member legislative body had a good answer to that question at the time, Bayne said, and the ordinance was defeated.

"It's interesting because at the same time that the blight ordinance was taken up, a noise ordinance was taken up as well, which was also defeated in the RTM," Bayne said. "I think there's a strong, almost libertarian streak in Darien. People don't like government intruding on what's going on in their houses."

The town still does not have a blight ordinance, nor does Westport. But other Fairfield County municipalities, such as Danbury, Stamford, Fairfield and Wilton do.

In Wilton, the role of blight officer is shared by the zoning enforcement officer, building official and health director, according to the Town's director of Planning and Land Use Management, Robert Nerney.

"It's sort of an advantage in that the decision making doesn't rest on the shoulders of one person. We're able to look at these cases on a collaborative basis, and I think in that sense it worked well," Nerney said.

"I guess from my own personal point of view, the mission has always been to try to effectuate compliance, and we don't try to look at things so much from a punitive perspective. Our mission is to try to keep properties in a state of compliance, but I think it should be stressed that a blighted property really is a property that has reached the level that poses a danger to people who might enter the property and to the neighborhood as well, in terms of safety, property values and so forth," he said.

But blight doesn't exist in a vacuum, according to Nerney.

"It is more often a symptom of other problems," he said. "We have, on occasion, even alerted our social services agency to make contact with people. There's oftentimes underlying reasons that may not be immediately known ... depression, substance abuse, things of that nature. Those issues do come up in Fairfield County as they do in the rest of the country."

Disability and impaired mobility of property owners can also contribute to blight, as well as financial problems.

In Darien, neighbors on Lynn Court recently complained to town officials about a vacant home that has become an "eyesore" on the street, according to Libby Stowell, a neighbor of the property in question.

"It's very frustrating. It's surprising because there are neighboring towns that do have blight ordinances, and to have something to this extent -- it isn't extenuating circumstances," Stowell said.

Stowell and her neighbors have written letters to Darien's Board of Selectmen to address the problem, since there is no blight ordinance in place.

"I think they should get a blight ordinance. It has certain stipulations. I don't think you can go after somebody who has trouble keeping up a property, but when you have an abandoned property owned by somebody not doing anything about it, there should be something about that," she said.

"Neighbors are concerned it's pulling down their property value and the more uncared for it gets, the more obvious it is," Stowell said. "It's become a very obvious nuisance on the street."

In New Canaan, Platz receives blight comments from neighbors near stalled construction projects.

"Due to loss of financing and the economic downturn, there are construction sites that have pretty much slowed to crawl. I get blight complaints them, the half-finished projects that are somewhat dormant," he said. "I pretty much give people a `get out of jail free' card for construction if they have a valid building permit. I don't have the authority to tell them how long it should take them to finish their job. You can take your time with your project.

"It's very, very difficult. And I'm sympathetic to people who live next door to a half-finished home. It's an attractive nuisance for kids in the neighborhood, but at the same time, there isn't much I can do about that," Platz said.

The fine for blight can reach up to $250 a day in New Canaan, according to Platz.

Darien's blight ordinance was debated before the economic downturn, in what Bayne described as a "different time in Darien."

"With the economy being what it is now, versus what it was then, people had a hard time envisioning that they would let their property go," he said. "But in this day in age, it obviously has happened."

But with so many "gray areas," defining and enforcing blight in a new economy continues to be a challenge for Platz.

"It's a slippery slope," he said. "A very slippery slope."