Borough’s blight fight makes strides under temporary officer

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This unoccupied property at 714 Maple Hill Road was overgrown last summer. The bank that owns the property has since hired a property preservation company to take care of the grass after a request from Naugatuck's blight enforcement officer.

NAUGATUCK — Temporary Blight Enforcement Officer and Mayoral Aide Ed Carter said he has handled a steady stream of calls regarding blight since Mayor Robert Mezzo appointed him blight officer in June.

The blight ordinance, which prohibits unseemly properties such as overgrown grass, junk in yards and dilapidated structures, went into effect in November 2010 with no one to enforce it until Carter took the position.

Carter said calls vary from complaints of trash in yards, to dumpsters that sat on properties too long, to neighbors who didn’t pick up leaves and branches following big storms. Carter said he had more calls during the summer, when overgrown grass was a problem.

A lot of the complaints came from neighbors who were trying to sell their own properties, Carter said.

When Carter took on the position, he initially focused on foreclosed homes owned by banks.

“We’ve worked out very well with those,” Carter said.

He said it took him a while to figure out how to track down the mortgage companies that owned those properties. Sometimes, a house may be abandoned, but Carter had to wait for the bank that held the mortgage to take ownership of the property, a process that can take six to nine months. Other properties have been empty for over three years, Carter said. Mortgages are bought and sold so often, sometimes even the banks don’t know who owns the property, he said.

“That gets a little frustrating at times,” Carter said.

Carter said a lot of problems come when people are evicted from a property and just leave their stuff on the curb. He said some landlords are quick to respond to the problem, but others don’t even know that it’s out there.

“If we could determine the ownership of it, it could actually be considered illegal dumping,” Carter said.

In some cases, the banks thought they were paying for someone to maintain the property, but they weren’t doing the work. Now that Carter has contacts in the banks, he expects they will be quicker to respond to problems.

“There is still a lot to be done in regard to blight,” Carter said.

Carter said he’s worked on 50 to 60 locations throughout the borough. He said some of the problems are easier to fix while others are longer-term.

Last fall, the borough hired a contractor to remediate some bank-owned properties. The contractor worked on 12 properties at a cost of $3,286 to the borough, Carter said.

So far, he’s received $5,086 in payments from those properties’ owners, and is still waiting for a few to respond. The borough levied extra fees against banks that didn’t respond to the bill after 30 days.

Carter said he’s worked with the Fire Department, Naugatuck Valley Health District, and the zoning enforcement officer, among others, to address different types of problems.

“It requires someone to coordinate communication to and between those various departments and agencies,” Mezzo said.

For locations where people are still living, Carter said most homeowners have tried their best to take care of blight situations once notified. He said he works with them to understand their situation.

Carter said he believes his efforts are making a difference. So far, he hasn’t had to reopen any cases after they’ve been resolved, but the real test will come in the spring when plants start growing again.

“I think the real difference will be seeing a year ago today,” Carter said.

Linda Ramos, co-chair of the Blight and Beautification Committee that wrote Naugatuck’s blight ordinance in 2010, said Carter is doing a good job.

“I really think that Ed has gotten a handle on it. I can see visible signs of cleanup,” Ramos said.

She said she was pleased to see the former Bob’s Dodge and Frankie’s Restaurant have been cleaned up.

However, Ramos said she would still like to see the borough hire a separate, part-time blight officer.

“I think that Ed, probably, with being the mayor’s aide, can’t devote as much as a blight officer could,” Ramos said.

A part-time, $20,000 blight officer position was originally part of the proposed 2011-2012 spending plan, but the joint boards took it out in an effort to reduce costs.

“I hope the budget can afford it next time around,” Ramos said.

Mezzo said Carter will present his findings on the process to the joint boards during this year’s budget preparations.

“I think we’ve created a workable arrangement with Mr. Carter to address a particular segment of blight,” Mezzo said, referring to bank-owned properties.

However, Mezzo said there are a lot of other aspects of blight and beautification that the borough has not been able to address.

“It’s just a very small portion of what we envisioned … when we started” Mezzo said.

Mezzo said a dedicated blight and beautification officer would benefit the community. Mezzo said there are still many commercial businesses and residential issues that the Carter doesn’t have the resources to address.

Mezzo said the Blight and Beautification Committee also talked about education as part of the initiative, but the borough doesn’t have the resources to dedicate to that either.

Carter agreed that part of the process needs to involve education of the community. He said the borough also needs to focus on the positive work groups have done to beautify the borough.

“It’s just not about the negatives,” Carter said.