Processes for handling blight vary across Wayne County jurisdictions

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Staff photo

A far-north Richmond resident reported this house at 2927 Westview Drive in the Fairacres addition burned approximately 5 months ago and nothing has been done.

About this installment of WWN’s blight series

Editor’s note: The WWN continues to sort out the complexities and possible solutions to dealing with properties that have been vacant and/or blighted to the point of deterioration.
This issue’s dive into the topic provides a high-level view of how each government jurisdiction currently addresses blighted properties.
Thanks to Hagerstown Town Manager Chris LaMar, Centerville Code Enforcement Gerald Millsaps, Cambridge City Superintendent of Public Works Ken Risch, and Wayne County’s Director of Facilities and Development Steve Higinbotham, for your responses.
We hope to receive responses from Richmond and Fountain City soon and will share them on our website, www.hmgccity.com.

1. Do you have any blighted property ordinances (more than 1?) What sorts of things do they reference, i.e., grass exceeding a specified number of inches? Overgrown, dead or dropped trees that have been left unattended? Abandoned cars?
Hagerstown- Hagerstown’s Code of Ordinances has several ordinances in place to deal with blighted properties. Chapter 92 deals with Garbage, Rubbish, Ashes and Filth, Chapter 98 deals with Abandoned Motor Vehicles, Chapter 99 deals with Nuisances such as tall grass and weeds. Chapter 159 deals with Unsafe Buildings and other maintenance issues
Centerville- We have 3 ordinances that address blight problems. 1) Weeds and vegetation that includes the tall grass (although we do not have a certain height requirement in the ordinance, we use 8” – this is the height used in recent court decisions in Indiana), 2) Unsafe Building Ordinance, and 3) Abandoned Vehicle Ordinance.
Cambridge City- There are probably 4 that I can think of.
Wayne County- No to blighted property ordinances, grass or trees in the first three questions.
The term “abandoned car(s)” is not a term we use. We use terms such as “unlicensed,” “inoperative,” “vehicle parts,” etc. These are handled through our zoning ordinance.

2. Could you count or estimate a percent of vacant properties in your community, that are blighted?
Hagerstown- Less than 1% of the vacant properties in Hagerstown would be considered blighted.
Centerville- Less than 5%
Cambridge City- I would say 1% or less
Wayne County- No, we do not track vacant properties that are “blighted.”

3. Do you provide aid to property owners unable to keep up with exterior maintenance, before it gets too large to resolve? If yes, please provide contact information and special requirements for getting that assistance, i.e., senior citizen, health compromised, lacking skills or equipment to do the work.
Hagerstown- We have two programs in place to assist with tree removal and sidewalk replacement. Other than that, Hagerstown does not currently offer any financial assistance or aid to property owners who are unable to keep up with property maintenance. In the past, there were IHCDA grants that the town received to assist with these items. Some area churches are very gracious to assist residents with maintenance issues and expenses. The Jefferson Township Trustee has also assisted with these issue as well.
Centerville- Not at this time
Cambridge City- No
Wayne County- No

4. What enforcement efforts, if any, have you utilized in the past 6 months, and how effective have efforts been?
Hagerstown- On average we send out 4-6 tall grass mow violations monthly during the spring/ summer/ fall months. If lawns are not mowed, our employees mow the lawns and we bill the property owner. This is very effective, however, depending on the number and condition of lawns creates a burden on our employees. Abandoned car removal has also been enforced within the past six months. These efforts have been relatively effective.
Centerville- Warning letters to repair building, mow grass and place liens on property; ordered removal of trash from property; demolition of structure; condemn  building.
Cambridge City- Sending out letter
Wayne County- We do not have a “blight” ordinance

5. Who is in charge of enforcement – name, phone and email – and is enforcement only initiated by complaints or do you have someone looking for violations and providing citations?
Hagerstown- We have multiple town employees in Hagerstown looking to enforce the mowing ordinance plus we receive some complaints from residents. The weed violation ordinance is enforced by the Town Manager and Clerk/ Treasurer, while the abandoned vehicle and rubbish ordinances are enforced by our police department. Our building inspector is responsible for enforcing most of the building ordinance violations, however, depending on the nature of the situation the town manager and town council may become involved as well.
Centerville- Gerald Millsaps 765-855-5515 gmillsaps@town.centerville.in.us code enforcement officer Town of Centerville. Complaints are received both verbally and by officer visual inspections.
Cambridge City- Ken Risch (765) 478-5611 cambridgecity@comcast.net
Wayne County- We do not have a “blight” ordinance

6. When acting on a citizen complaint, is the complainant identified when you contact the property owner?
Hagerstown- When acting on a citizen complaint, the complainant is not identified.
Centerville- They are not released as a normal process. Usually, an officer confirms the complaint and verifies it before contact is made with the owner of the property.

Cambridge City- Not the name of the person making the complaint just that there have been complaints.
Wayne County- As above

7. How much time do you allow for vacant properties with fire damage?
Hagerstown- We have been very fortunate to only have had a handful of houses with fire damage over the past 10-15 years. This can be a tough issue to deal with depending on several variables such as the extent of damage, fire investigation, location of structure (potential damage to adjacent property or injury to pedestrians) and homeowners insurance issues. We do not have an ordinance in place which specifies that structures be demolished, but typically it is only a matter of weeks.
Centerville- We give then 30 days to  provide a plan to remove or repair property. If property is a hazard could lead to immediate removal.
Cambridge City- I’m not sure if we have anything that states that.
Wayne County- See below for further information.

8. What are your biggest challenges in dealing with blighted property?
Hagerstown- Absentee landlords. We have a handful of rental property owners that reside in other states. Some of them have probably never physically seen the poor condition of the houses they are renting out. Some of them simply don’t care. We have other blighted properties that are inhabited by good intentioned people that cannot afford the maintenance that needs to be performed on their homes.
Centerville- Finding funding for removal of blighted structure(s).
Cambridge City- Finding the dollars to tear a building down.
Wayne County- Resources, both in funds available and having enough staff to dedicate to this. Determining ownership of a property is sometimes challenging. Often times, a property is owned by an LLC, and out of state person or company, through a contract purchase, or an out of state bank. In most of these instances it is difficult to get a responsive result from the owner.

9. Other information you would like citizens to know.
Hagerstown- Generally speaking, the Hagerstown real estate market is strong enough that houses are in demand and we are fortunate to have little blight. As Hagerstown Town Manager, I often hear compliments from visitors to our community about how well maintained our residents’ properties are.
Centerville- N/A
Cambridge City- N/A
Wayne County- Wayne County Government, through its Planning and Zoning Department, Building Commission, and Health Department handled unsafe buildings and properties. Statutorily, we address building code issues and unsafe structure issues through our Unsafe Building Ordinance. By statute there are a number of steps we must take before we can remedy an unsafe situation, unless there is an immediate danger to life. Specifically, to the question of “fire damaged” properties, it depends on the amount of fire damage, and the time it takes for insurance companies to assess the loss and effect repairs. Other issues such as junk cars, junk, discarded items, this is generally handled through our zoning ordinance and enforced through the Planning and Zoning Department.
For the purpose of your story, it is important to understand jurisdictions. Wayne County Planning & Zoning does not have jurisdiction in the incorporated towns, nor does it have jurisdiction in the 2 mile fringe areas of Hagerstown, Cambridge City, Centerville, and Richmond. Our Unsafe Building Ordinance is not applicable to any incorporated community.
The Health Department can deal with unsanitary living conditions throughout the county.
Township Trustees have jurisdiction over noxious weeds within their respective townships. Noxious weeds, e.g., Canadian Thistle, Johnson Grass, etc.

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