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Charles County this month can begin applying its clean-and-lien policies to local properties that carry building code violations, which already allowed the county to remedy community nuisances and zoning ordinance violations.

State legislation passed this year allows the county to demolish structures it couldn’t before, hire contractors to make structural repairs and include fines on a property’s tax bill, county Codes, Permits and Inspection Services Chief Frank Ward told the Charles County commissioners last week.

More common building code violations that could be addressed via the clean-and-lien program, which allows the county to recoup the cost of remedying nuisance or illegal properties, include unpermitted homes, home repairs, decks and sheds, as well as dilapidated homes that have become popular hangouts for local youth or drug users, Ward said.

Property nuisances can range from tall grass to an accumulation of trash, and are “more of an appearance issue and something that would cause an unpleasantness to neighboring properties more so than a safety or structural issue or an improper use of a property,” Ward said. Improper use of a property would amount to a zoning violation, whereas a structural issue would typically fall under the building code, he said.

The state originally granted the county the right to fix up nuisance properties in 1991, expanded that authority to include zoning violations in 2012 and building code violations this past legislative session, Ward said.

Nuisance properties have long been an issue in Charles County, one aggravated by the economic recession and an uptick in foreclosures.

“In some areas of the state people go out of their way to stay in their house,” Ward said. “For some reason, in certain neighborhoods in Charles County they seem to be willing to walk away rather than stay in the house, but the rest of the neighbors want to stay in that neighborhood and are happy to stay in that neighborhood, and that neighbor’s house that’s dilapidated for various reasons is an eyesore that’s impacting them.”

The county must wait to be reimbursed for the costs of abatements until the property owner pays his tax bill, so it included a $100,000 fund in its 2014 fiscal budget to immediately pay for cleanups and repairs.

Remedies can range from mowing grass to completely demolishing a house, so the cost can vary widely among properties, Associate County Attorney Matthew Claggett said.

After receiving a citizen complaint of a nuisance property, the owners are given 30 days to take care of it before the case goes before the county’s nuisance abatement board, Claggett said. The county amended its nuisance abatement ordinance earlier this year, allowing the board to meet more often and handle more cases.

Zoning and building code violations must first go to district court before the county can act on them, Claggett said.

“We can’t just arbitrarily trespass on the property. There is a legal process,” Ward said. “Property owners have rights and we need to make sure to protect the interests of our taxpayers that we’re not just trespassing on the property. We do have to go through a court action.”

Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) asked whether the county could avoid lengthy legal cases by creating an administrative board to handle zoning and building code cases, but Claggett said the county would be better served to run such matters through “judicial due process.”

This year the county has closed 54 clean-and-lien cases and currently has 21 open zoning and building code cases, County Attorney Barbara Holtz said. The nuisance abatement board was scheduled to consider 13 cases at its Oct. 9 meeting, she said. Claggett said there are emergency actions that can be taken on properties that present a clear danger to the community, but the county has to first prove the emergency.

“We don’t come across them very often,” he said.

jnewman@somdnews.com