NAUGATUCK — Property owners whose properties are deemed blighted by the borough can now find themselves facing criminal penalties.
The Board of Mayor and Burgesses on Tuesday approved an amendment to the blight and nuisances ordinance 9-1.
Blighted properties can now be hit with either civil or criminal penalties. Those cited as criminal cases will be referred to housing court. Once it goes to housing court, the state can enforce penalties of up to $250 a day for blight that is not repaired. Civil citations include fines of up to $100 a day.
The borough can only choose one action, either criminal or civil, against a blighted property.
The amendment also shortens the time property owners have to remediate blight from 30 days to 15 days. Borough Attorney Ned Fitzpatrick originally proposed five days, which is what is allowed by the state and what Waterbury has in its blight ordinance, but the board felt that was too short a time.
Blight no longer has to be an ongoing issue to be addressed under the ordinance.
“This allows a shorter time frame for a blight officer or police officer to remediate the blight,” Fitzpatrick said.
The revised ordinance also extends the definition of blight to include peeling, chipping, and deteriorating paint over more than 33 percent of a structure.
Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said the changes are intended to tighten up the blight ordinance and to make enforcement more effective.
“In Waterbury, the blight taskforce works out of the police department,” Fitzpatrick added. “They found that the response to blight is at 99 percent when a police officer issues a ticket.”
Mayoral Aide Ed Carter, who has served as the borough’s temporary blight officer for the past five years, said the changes will help get the job done.
“Going to the criminal aspect will allow us to work with people a little bit. I literally have people right now saying ‘go ahead, fine me, I’ve got nothing to give you.’ And that’s where it ends. What else am I going to do,” Carter said.
Carter also recommended the borough move quickly to fill the blight officer position permanently.
“I think if we are going to go forward with this in the future we have to consider having someone who is officially in this role. It is not something a volunteer can just do. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort,” Carter said. “Today alone I was out at 17 properties.”
Carter said he receives more phone calls about blight than any other issue. He said not all properties he investigates are blighted, some are cases of neighbor against neighbor. However, each one needs to be checked out.
He said what is difficult is tracking down banks that own properties and are not local.
“It’s not a fun job and I am at the point where I am ready to say I am done with it. I get people yelling at me. I have had things written in the paper about me. I had comments posted on websites. I’m just trying to help people out,” Carter said.
Hess is also working on creating a blight taskforce that will review blight cases. The taskforce would include himself, borough attorneys, Carter, the building inspector, the zoning enforcement officer, and representation from the public works department.
The taskforce will determine whether it wants to pursue civil action or criminal enforcement through the housing courts for blight.
Burgess Rocky Vitale was the only one to vote against the amendment due to “serious concerns” about adding criminal offences to the ordinance.
Vitale said he wanted to make sure that everything was written out and enforced on what was in the ordinance, not what the blight officer or taskforce felt was blight.
“The decision should be data-driven, it shouldn’t be opinion-driven. I think that needs to be written into the ordinance, exactly what that data is and how it is going to be measured,” Vitale said.
Vitale also felt the borough should have given the public more time to comment on the amendment.
Hess said the issue has been a concern for some people for a long time and that the borough should act on the ordinance quickly.
“The members of the public that contact the Mayor’s Office want to see it happen last month. The people who may be subject to enforcement maybe don’t want to see it happen ever,” Hess said.