Blight complaints can’t be acted upon by town officials yet: The anti-blight ordinance recently approved doesn’t take effect until mid-April. But the phone calls have started.
“Thus far we’ve had two phone calls, but not any claim,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Tuesday.
“The phone calls were more ‘When does it go into effect? I live in such and such and an area of town, and I’ve got a situation in my neighborhood.’”
The new law becomes official 15 days after the town publishes notice of its adoption. With a legal notice in the March 27 Ridgefield Press, that’ll be Friday, April 11.
The anti-blight ordinance was passed 39-24 by a packed and lively town meeting Wednesday night, March 19. There were 13 speakers: 10 against the law, and three in favor of it.
“I think any kind of ordinance that seeks to set a standard for how people should live conflicts with our basic American values of freedom,” said Jeremy Tucci of Lafayette Avenue.
“This is a power grab,” said Scott DeYoung of Caudatowa Drive. “I don’t want to give more power to the town.”
Chuck Jennes of Madeline Drive said he lived near a property that demonstrated the need for a blight law. Abandoned for over a year, with woodpecker holes and a rodent infestation, he said the property is owned by a bank that just doesn’t maintain it.
“They don’t care,” he said.
The new law is designed to give town officials a legal means to make property owners clean up, fix up and take better care of houses and other properties where maintenance has been neglected.
It allows fines of up $100 a day for property owners cited for blight violations, and fines of up to $250 a day for “willful violations” when citations are ignored.
Determining it’s ‘blight’
Determining whether an allegation of neglect merits town action will be the job of a Blight Prevention Board composed of five officials: the first selectman, health director, fire marshal, building official and zoning enforcement officer.
Complaints must be filed in writing, and may be turned in to the first selectman or any other official on the Blight Prevention Board.
“They can send a letter to me,” Mr. Marconi said, “to the building department, to the health official, to the fire marshal…”
During months of work on the law, the selectmen had scrapped plans for a “blight enforcement officer” and assigned the task to the five-member board so no single person would decide what is and isn’t blight.
Any member of the board may do the investigation that follows a complaint, based on the problem alleged.
“If a complaint is filed it will come to the Blight Prevention Board. At that point it’s reviewed and a determination is made as to what specific discipline — fire, zoning, health — would be the lead investigator on the complaint,” Mr. Marconi said.
“Let’s say there’s garbage everywhere, there are rodents, that’s health. If the windows are missing, that would be the building official.”
If the complaint seems valid, the board would conduct a hearing and “all interested persons shall be given the opportunity to present evidence” on the allegation.
If the board determines a property is blighted, the law allows the owner to contest the decision to a separate Citation Appeals Board made up of three citizens.
Appeals board members will be appointed “by the first selectman with the consent of the Board of Selectmen” so people interested would contact the first selectman’s office and probably interview before the full board.
“We need to be careful there, too,” Mr. Marconi said. “We need to be sure we don’t appoint people who are predisposed to a mission of cleaning up a town. We need people who are fair and understanding,” he said.
The citation appeals board should be up and ready to hear cases in “the next couple of months,” he said — plenty of time, given the procedures a complaint would go through before it might be appealed.
“It’s going to take that long, at least, to process any claim coming in,” Mr. Marconi said.
Though they lost the vote, opponents of the law dominated debate at last week’s town meeting.
Several were troubled by the principle of a law giving the town the power to dictate how someone should maintain their own property, some calling it unconstitutional. Others protested the fines, or worried the law open to misuse.
“This law is about forced compliance,” said Marc Greco of Old Sib Road.
A law empowering town government to fine people for how they take care their own property amounted to a “violation of Ridgefielders’ Fourth Amendment right to be secure in their homes.” Mr. Greco said.
Joey Santisi, a Ridgefield High School student studying the blight issue, also invoked the Constitution.
“I strongly believe that constitutionally protected freedom of expression is trampled if an anti-blight ordinance does not define blight in a purely objective manner,” he said “In other words, a blight definition that relies on the subjective judgment of a town committee of what constitutes a ‘danger to the … general welfare of the community’ or inadequate maintenance due to, for example, some missing siding, is repulsive to our country’s values.”
“Anyone can file a complaint, now,” said Laura Stabell of Lake Road.
“What it does turn into is harassment by neighbors. A lot of people like to pick on people.”
She added, “$250 a day, plus 19% interest — that adds up quickly.”
“Thirty days, you could fine us $8,000 a month!” said Bob Sereday of Crest Road.
“This is being driven by real estate profit, in my opinion,” said Bob Swanson of Soundview Road. “I don’t think it’s fair. I’m voting no.”
Have some faith
Others said the fears of opponents were exaggerated.
“I’m confident the town won’t come after people for just some loose siding,” said Dave Sigsworth of Silver Spring Lane.
“I’m asking you to have faith in our government officials,” said Gabby Kessler, who said she was a Realtor but wasn’t speaking as one.
“If you care about your friends and neighbors — forget about real estate — you ought to want to keep this town beautiful.
“The problems, if you don’t address it now, it’s going to get worse and worse.”