Vote on fourth try at an anti-blight or­di­nance

The News-Times (Sunday) - - News - By Anna Quinn aquinn@new­

NEW FAIR­FIELD — Vot­ers will get the fi­nal say on whether the town’s fourth at­tempt at an an­tib­light or­di­nance — to con­trol prop­er­ties that have be­come health or safety haz­ards — will be the one to stick.

The pro­posed rules faced their fi­nal pub­lic hear­ing this week and will likely head to a ma­chine vote some­time after Thanks­giv­ing, First Se­lect­man Pat Del Monaco said. New Fair­field is one of only two towns in the Dan­bury area that doesn’t have an anti-blight or­di­nance rules on the books.

The new­est pro­posal ad­dresses some of the con­cerns of the past at­tempts, Del Monaco said, such as en­sur­ing it is fo­cused on haz­ards rather than aes­thet­ics and cre­at­ing a “blight pre­ven­tion board” to work with home­own­ers to­ward a so­lu­tion.

“It was im­por­tant to all three of (the se­lect­men) to make the def­i­ni­tion of blight less sub­jec­tive and more spe­cific,” Del Monaco said. “Also, we want to have a process where we could try to work with res­i­dents to cor­rect what­ever is­sues we could.”

But, that doesn’t mean this draft still hasn’t faced its share of push­back.

Au­thor­ity or over­reach?

Most res­i­dents who spoke against the pro­posal at re­cent hear­ings said it was an ex­am­ple of “govern­ment over­reach.” They con­tended that the town’s cur­rent departments should be able to han­dle code vi­o­la­tions that would qual­ify as blight.

But, Del Monaco said that un­der the cur­rent rules, the town does not have the au­thor­ity to step in and fix a haz­ard if a home­owner re­fuses to do so or can­not be reached. Many of the prop­er­ties that might qual­ify as blight have “ab­sen­tee own­ers” that would force the town to re­fer the prop­erty to the state if it can­not reach them.

With the or­di­nance, the town would be able to at least fix the haz­ard in­stead of leav­ing it un­re­solved dur­ing the lengthy process.

New­town Anti-blight En­force­ment Of­fi­cer Steve Maguire added that an­tib­light or­di­nances speed up the process be­cause they ad­dress is­sues that be­fore­hand would have re­quired in­di­vid­ual ci­ta­tions across mul­ti­ple departments.

New­town passed its anti-blight or­di­nance in 2013.

“It ba­si­cally pulls all departments to­gether so we can have more lever­age,” Maguire said. “It’s been help­ing out a lot with va­cant prop­er­ties. It’s a good tool.”

Safety vs. beauty

An­other ma­jor de­bate about the or­di­nance has been whether it will al­low the town, or neigh­bors with a vendetta, to dic­tate what home­own­ers can do on their prop­er­ties.

“Blight is very sub­jec­tive, what is blight to one is not blight to an­other,” one res­i­dent said this week.

But Del Monaco and the se­lect­men con­tended that the most re­cent draft uses only cri­te­ria based on health, fire or build­ing code vi­o­la­tions. Neigh­bors can write a for­mal com­plaint, but it will be up to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the blight pre­ven­tion board to de­ter­mine if it ac­tu­ally qual­i­fies as blight.

Maguire said in New­town, neigh­bor and aes­thetic com­plaints haven’t gone away, but the or­di­nance has pro­tected them from be­ing pur­sued as in­ci­dents of blight.

“Once we passed the or­di­nance peo­ple called in left and right to say, ‘my neigh­bor is a blight,’ ” Maguire said. “(But), for it to rise to that level it has to be pretty sig­nif­i­cant. The level has to be pretty high for it to go into the blight or­di­nance.”

In New Fair­field, the se­lect­men made changes this week to its or­di­nance to fur­ther guard against aes­thet­ics com­ing into play, in­clud­ing adding a spot for a res­i­dent on the blight pre­ven­tion board.

The pre­ven­tion board in­cludes the vol­un­teer and the town’s fire mar­shal, health di­rec­tor, build­ing of­fi­cer, zon­ing en­force­ment of­fi­cer, di­rec­tor of so­cial ser­vices and first se­lect­man.

Spe­cial cir­cum­stances

Res­i­dents have also wor­ried about whether the or­di­nance would place an un­fair bur­den on the town’s most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents. The el­derly, dis­abled or those with lower in­come might not be able to af­ford fix­ing what qual­i­fies as blight on their prop­erty, they said.

Del Monaco con­tends that the or­di­nance makes it so these “spe­cial cir­cum­stances” will be con­sid­ered and al­lows for ex­ten­sions or fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance in those cases.

“(The so­cial ser­vices di­rec­tor) will al­ways be part of the process so that we do not over­look those cir­cum­stances,” she said, adding that of­fi­cials hope most cases of blight can be re­solved be­fore a ci­ta­tion or fine is needed. “We’re usu­ally able to work through vi­o­la­tions of our or­di­nances with res­i­dents with­out ever get­ting to that point.”

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