Vacant building

By Matthew Hall

A handful of vacant buildings with stalled construction projects will be subject to additional regulation following the Nov. 1 council meeting.

Council debated establishing a full-fledged vacant building registry that would have placed additional constraints on vacant buildings but ultimately chose a minor revision to code compliance rules with direction to revisit the issue down the road.

According to City Staff, about 29 properties were vacant at the time of their most recent inventory. Of those, only 10 were vacant without some kind of development project or Ellis Act process currently underway.

An owner violates no laws by leaving a building vacant, but there are other kinds of violations that can be incurred due to general neglect. Staff said less than one percent of total calls into the City’s code compliance division are about vacant properties but of the 23 complaints received in the last year, accusations included overgrown weeds, trash, abandoned vehicles, fire hazards, squatters and building maintenance.

Prior to last week, no rule required construction to be completed on any kind of timeline and despite resident concerns over abandoned projects, the city had no rules to penalize land owners with partially built projects.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich pushed for a full vacant building registry including fees for vacant buildings, insurance requirements and additional enforcement. According to staff, developing the registry would be time and cost intensive but would provide the most significant level of regulation.

Himmelrich said she hoped a vacant registry would force property owners to pay attention and that enforcing compliance could be revenue neutral if fees were high enough.

“The thing that bothers me is we’re dealing with this on a case by case basis rather than on systematic basis and even if we don’t have a lot of them, it seems we should have a system for dealing with it and not in a random way,” she said.

However, the majority of the council agreed with a staff recommendation that would amend existing nuisance rules to allow enforcement against projects left in a state of partial construction for an unreasonable amount of time.

“I just think that not every solution requires more government so I prefer to go to the simpler staff recommendation to see if we can make that work in the near term and if that continues to be a problem, we can revisit the registry if necessary,” said Councilman Ted Winterer.

Mayor Tony Vazquez said the code compliance rules should be strong enough to handle complaints, but also fair in their application particularly as they relate to small businesses.

“We allow folks to just abandon buildings or homes or apartments, to me they are eye sores and we can’t do anything about it because there’s nothing in the code. I understand, but yet we sweat these small businesses that are trying to make a living because they have a little bit of signage in the window.”

Councilman Kevin McKeown said the city’s priorities should be on code compliance issues for occupied buildings and protecting current residents.

“There are only so many staff members and cubicles in City Hall…” he said.

City Manager Rick Cole agreed that staff were already working to capacity and suggested Council employ the code revision and see if it is effective before adopting an entirely new law.

“We are very stretched at the moment to do all the things we want to do and do them well,” he said. “And that’s my goal, to not do anything poorly.”

Following the adoption of the new code, staff will evaluate the system and council could revisit the issue at a future meeting.

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...