Keeping up with blight a growing problem

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Shrubs conceal a blighted home located at 56 Red Robin Road in Naugatuck. Mayoral Aid and Blight Officer Ed Carter has been battling the blighted properties in the borough. –RA ARCHIVE
NAUGATUCK — First he sent the friendly letter. Then the official warning. Finally, on Monday Mayoral Aide Ed Carter pinned a blight citation to the front and back doors of 56 Red Robin Road, the first still-occupied borough house he has cited for violating the borough’s blight ordinance.

“I’ve got people calling and saying they can’t see around the hedges,” Carter said as he backed down the driveway through swaths of grass towering around his Chevrolet Suburban. “It really is a shame that it’s come to this in many places.”

In the year since Carter assumed the duties of the borough’s blight officer, he said the borough’s blight problem has not improved.

“I guess maybe, for reasons I can’t control, it’s gotten a little bit worse,” Carter said. “People are struggling a little bit more.”

In response to the growing number of overgrown, usually vacant properties in the borough, the Board of Mayor and Burgesses passed a blight ordinance in late 2010, meant to be enforced by a blight officer. When the subsequent budget contained no money for the part-time, $20,000-per-year position, Mayor Robert Mezzo gave the job to Carter, who did not receive a raise.

Now Carter spends at least three hours a day dealing with blight complaints. He drives around to investigate each one, sometimes spotting other blighted areas along the way. If he determines the property is blighted, he first sends a letter asking the homeowner to contact him. If the owner does not reply within two weeks, he issues a warning with a deadline of 10 days to cut vegetation or 30 days to fix other problems.

If no action is taken within that time frame, Carter can issue a fine of up to $100 per day. More often, in the case of overgrown plants, he orders borough-approved contractors to clean the property and charges the owner for the work.

Carter can point out several properties the owners have cleaned up at his request, but new blighted areas surface all the time, including many of the same ones he has repeatedly warned. Carter on Monday worked off a list of about 40 blighted properties, tracking which owners he had contacted, warned, or cited.

“It’s like I have 40 kids and I have to tell them all every 10 days to clean their rooms,” Carter said.

In the past year, Carter has investigated about 100 properties, about 70 of which are foreclosed and owned by a bank. The majority of bank-owned properties can be traced to Bank of America, Carter said.

Late last year, the borough paid contractors to clean about a dozen properties at a cost exceeding $3,000, Carter said. Almost all the money has been reimbursed, although in one case borough attorneys are taking a Virginia-based bank to court for the money.

While Carter spends a good portion of his day handling blight issues, he can’t get to them all.

Neighbors of 42 Birch Lane, where wooden pallets lie beside the ranch house and overgrown brush and weeds have taken over the back yard, consider the property to be a blighted one.

Emidio Cerasale of 110 Birch Lane filed a blight complaint about the house with Carter.

“Other towns have been taking care of this kind of blight,” Cerasale said. “When a house is let go like this, it doesn’t do any value to the street.”

After all he has seen, he said, he does not think 42 Birch Lane merits a warning under the ordinance.

“I’m the first one to say I wouldn’t want to live next door to it,” Carter said. “At what point do we, as government, step in on that?”

The house is inhabited. Richard Baxter, the owner of record, did not pay taxes on the property last year and owes about $3,400, according to the tax collector’s office.

Carter said he might have to take action if the problem gets worse, but while he juggles his duties as mayoral aide with those of acting blight officer, he can only do so much.

Cerasale said he has knocked on the door of 42 Birch Lane several times, but no one has answered. He said he wants the town to find someone who can help the residents maintain their property.

“I’m not looking to punish the people,” Cerasale said. “There must be a reason why the house is not kept up.”

Many in the borough are still hoping for a separate blight officer, Mezzo included. Since Carter took on the role, he has been able to devote less time to acting as Mezzo’s liaison to residents, applying for grants and helping with borough events.

In addition to enforcing the blight ordinance, a blight officer would educate the community and organize beautification efforts, Mezzo said.

“I think it’s needed,” Mezzo said. “I think that improving the image of your community certainly translates into a way to attract business, and better property values, which in this economy are pretty important.”