No enforcement officer for blight bylaw

NAUGATUCK – The Naugatuck blight bylaw went into effect Monday without an enforcement officer or structure in place to take complaints, according to Mayor Robert Mezzo.

The blight ordinance prohibits unseemly properties such as overgrown grass, junk in yards, and dilapidated structures. The blight officer would have authority to issue fines of $100 a day for properties not in compliance with the law.

Even though the law specifies a blight officer to enforce its provisions, Mezzo said that the position will not be created until the next fiscal year.

“The timing of the ordinance occurs as such as it’s in the middle of a fiscal year,” said Mezzo. “We can’t simply create a position that does not have funding without going back to the joint boards. So what will happen is the blight and beautification council will discuss what options are available in the interim and that is yet to be determined.”

Creating a position without first securing funding is backwards, according to former burgess Eileen Bronko, who attended the borough board meeting when the ordinance was passed. She said that creating this new position in the middle of the recession would be an unnecessary cost.

“Everybody is very upset about unfunded mandates,” Bronko said. “And that fact is that you’re mandating this position to be in effect but there’s no funding for it. So, you know, for all the people that say ‘Get rid of these unfunded mandates,’ well, they just approved an ordinance with an unfunded mandate.”

According to Mezzo and Fragoso, the ordinance would primarily help the town deal with properties in foreclosure.

“Right now, if that situation exists, it’s very difficult to get somebody even on the phone,” said Mezzo.

Now the town will be able to force banks to upkeep the properties they own.

“When a property is blighted,” said Fragoso, “the ordinance allows, say the mayoral aide, to call the banks or whatever financial institutions own the mortgage and they have to by law … remedy the situation.”

Bronko said that banks should clean up the property they own, but that it was not necessary to have a 12 page ordinance to address this issue.

“If they were targeting the fact that banks were not taking care of the properties and putting the money into mowing them, then you could have been a little more creative of dealing with that,” said Bronko.

Fragoso hopes the law will help improve property values.

“People have an adverse reaction to going into a neighborhood that looks sloppy and messy and unkempt and they’re not going to buy there,” said Fragoso.

Bronko, however, thought that the situation would remedy itself once the properties are sold.

“I was at that meeting and I saw the pictures on some of the houses and some of them have been sold and the grass is no longer a problem,” she said.

Even though there is no appointed officer to issue fines, complaints and problems will not go unheeded, said Burgess Mindy Fragoso.

She said that other organizations such as the health department, police, zoning enforcement officer (ZEO) and mayoral aide already handle many of the problems outlined in the blight ordinance.

“We have things in place now or people in positions now or agencies in place now that could resolve some of the problems that residents may have,” said Fragoso.

Although she agrees that some properties need to be cleaned up, Bronko said that the ordinance unnecessarily regulates areas which are already covered under other laws.

“The fact is that our ZEO has been handling all these issues anyway,” said Bronko.

She said that the new law overlaps current zoning regulations.

“For example, 23.3.3 of the zoning ordinance talks about outside storage, so they could have expanded that zoning regulation so that our ZEO would have had that ability to address high grass,” Bronko said. “We didn’t need another ordinance to deal with it.”

Mezzo said that the new law would address some issues not already covered under other laws.

“We receive numerous complaints on an ongoing basis and most of those get directed through our office,” Mezzo said. “The blight ordinance is to cover those areas that are not under the purview of an already existing law but still are causing problems in neighborhoods, depreciation of property values.”

Other issues related to blight are already covered by zoning law, health code, building department ordinances, and criminal statutes, according to Mezzo.

Mezzo said that the blight ordinance was just one part of holistic approach to the beautification of Naugatuck.

“The easiest thing to do is to pass the law,” said Mezzo.

Fragoso said that she hoped other groups would join the effort to clean up the town.

“Maybe this will energize and get people that love to garden to adopt spots, because another portion of the beautification play and that’s to adopt a location and care for it,” Fragoso said. “I think Naugatuck has to take a long hard at looking at sustainable methods of keeping Naugatuck looking the way it needs to look.”

Bronko was worried that the fines could be embarrassing for property owners.

“I was very very disappointed the fact that the one woman’s personal life and property became the cover story of the blight ordinance,” Bronko said. “I thought that was distasteful and I felt embarrassed on this person’s behalf. … Her property was used as why the blight ordinance would be effective.”

Public embarrassment can be motivating, according to Fragoso.

“First of all, it’s not meant to be a witch hunt,” Fragoso said. “I know in Waterbury they were extremely successful once they started publishing people’s names in the paper whose properties were blighted and weren’t doing anything about it. That, from my understanding, in Waterbury made a tremendous difference. People started cleaning up before they were fined.”

Mezzo said that he hoped to never enforce the ordinance, but “there are situations where education and working with potentially … problematic property owners would require the ordinance itself.”

“I think once the borough residents read it on the Internet everyone will be behind the blight and beautification because it’s only going to benefit every resident, not just a few,” said Fragoso.