Urban blight is a term that evokes visions of inner city slums and rust belt decay, but blighted properties are found in almost every urban area and Berryville is working to deal with several of their own. At the July meeting of the Town Planning Commission, Town Manger Keith Dalton stood before the board and presented four properties that have spawned complaints from citizens for appearance and safety. The properties brought to the attention of the board varied in degree of decay, as well as their status in the process of blight abatement. A property on Main Street had already been removed from the list for compliance, two others in the town were still in process, but a fourth property located on Josephine Street had fallen silent and was now the subject of scrutiny by the board.
23 Josephine Street was sold at auction approximately 5 years ago and Mr. Dalton told the board,”The lady that had lived there had been incarcerated and the property was sold at auction and the gentleman who owns it now purchased it as an investment property.” The Town Manager said that the owner had been responsive early in the process and felt he had dealt with the blight issue, mowing and cleaning up the property. He expressed plans to renovate the property in the future. However Mr. Dalton said, “These measures are not enough.”
The Town Manager presented a series of photographs that showed a property that is in severe decay. The front of the building is boarded up and secure, but large portions of the structure have no roof and much of the rear of the structure cannot be secured. He summarized by saying, “This is not minor stuff.”
After meeting with the owner on-site, the town sent a letter to the owner requesting abatement or an abatement plan for the property dated June 8, 2011. The town has received no response to that request. Based on the failure to respond the Town Manager sought to advance the process, “I do ask that a public hearing be set on this property. After that public hearing I would have to present to you a plan and I can tell you the plan that I will present to you would be for demolition.”
Under Town of Berryville code Section 5-5 “Spot Blight Abatement,” if the Town Manger makes a determination that a property is blighted the process is this; the Town Manager sends a letter to the property owner that gives them thirty days to either address the blight or to develop a written blight abatement plan. If that person fails to submit said plan or fails to submit a plan that meet the need, then the Town Manager submits to the Planning Commission to set a public hearing on whether or not the property is blighted. If the property is determined to be blighted then a recommendation is made to the Town Council. The council would then vote on whether to proceed with the Planning Commissions recommendation. In this case, if the recommendation to demolish is advanced, the town would hire a contractor to have the structure removed and then charge the costs back to the property owner.
Planning Commission Chair, Doug Schaffer raised a question regarding the level of effort that is put onto property owners regarding the requested abatement plan. “Just so I understand it as we move through these discussions, this plan that you ask for on abatement, this isn’t some big fancy engineers plan and architectural dream, this is simply ‘I’m going to do this and I will correct some of these items right now.'”
Keith Dalton confirmed that is was not a complex legal document, “That’s correct. What I ask for are the actions that will be taken on the property and the time frame.”
In the absence of a response from the property owner the Planning Commission was faced with a vote for a public hearing on whether or not the property is blighted. Mr. Dalton described the Public Hearing process for this saying, “The public hearing takes it out of the realm of being a decision by staff, the initial determination is mine but after that it becomes your determination and then recommendation to the town council.” He added, “It’s a very good process. It’s probably a little lengthier than surrounding property owners would prefer, but this is a serious issue. An issue this serious deserves a hearing before folks such as yourselves who have been appointed by council and people who have been elected. That’s the reason for this process.”
The Planning Commission voted unanimously to hold a Public Hearing on the matter. The hearing is scheduled for the next meeting of the Planning Commission, at which time the board will determine their final recommendation to the Town Council.