Edmonston officials target vacant properties -- Gazette.Net



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To prevent abandoned homes from marring the streets of Edmonston with unkempt yards, town officials want to require property owners to register vacant buildings or pay a hefty fine.

An ordinance, introduced to council members July 9, would make it easier for town officials to maintain lawns and bill those responsible for them, said Edmonston Police Chief Stephen Walker.

Out-of-control lawns aren’t just unattractive as they also affect property values and jeopardize public safety by attracting rodents and conveying a rundown image, officials said.

“The cleaner your town is, the better it looks, the safer it will be,” said Mayor Robert Kerns. “Our crime is down because we have police and we have a clean town ... . That’s what keeps your town safe.”

Rather than target individual property owners, the ordinance focuses on banks that fail to maintain foreclosed homes, forcing the town to pay for grass cutting and then spend months tracking down the owner to pay it back, Walker said.

It can cost Edmonston up to $800, depending on the equipment used and the magnitude of the work, to cut a neglected lawn just once, said town clerk Michelle Rodriguez.

If the council passes the ordinance in September — the council’s next meeting — owners of vacant properties will have to pay $75 per year to register each vacant property.

If they don’t, they would be fined $500 for every day the property remains unregistered.

Currently, vacant properties are only identified when their lawns are already a problem and expensive to fix, said town administrator Guy Tiberio. With so many places constantly changing hands, it can take months, even years, to find the owners, he said.

The owners of vacant properties, mainly banks, are billed for any maintenance costs, which are also registered with the state, Tiberio said.

“We’re pure lenders, not real estate owners,” said Kathleen Murphy, president and CEO of the Maryland Bankers Association. “Banks step in to do maintenance once they become the owners of the property. They are concerned with maintaining the collateral value of the home and selling it quickly.”

Maryland has a foreclosed home registry, the first in the U.S., for local government officials to access information on every property purchased in foreclosure and whether locations have someone providing maintenance, Maureen O’Connor said, director of communications and media relations for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The fee to register a property is $50, or $100 if late.

While officials said they discussed an ordinance for a while, area banks began asking whether Edmonston registered foreclosures and billed for maintenance.

“That’s what they’re expecting now,” Walker said.

Foreclosures have been on the rise in Edmonston since the housing crisis hit in 2007 and are just now gently declining, he said.

About eight percent of Edmonston’s housing units were vacant in 2010, according to Census data. About half of the town’s 483 total housing units are owned and the other half rented.

The council will review the ordinance and start publicizing it in the next few weeks, making any amendments before September when the community will have a chance to provide input.

Officials said they don’t expect much backlash from residents since fines will fall mostly on banks.

Although Walker said he does worry about “the single guy who falls on hard times, loses his house and forgets or doesn’t know to register.”

If that happens, a resident can always appeal to the council, which would most likely grant an extension, he said.

“We try to work with our community,” Walker said.