NORWALK, Conn. – After nearly two years of work, this Common Council on Tuesday night accomplished something prior councils could not – pass a blight ordinance.
Everyone involved agreed that it left a lot to be desired.
“Is it perfect? No,” Ordinance Committee Chairman Michael Geake (D-District B) said. “Fairly early on in the process we made the decision that we would start with an ordinance that would address, as Councilman (David) McCarthy termed it, the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the buildings that were truly heinous, that no one would dispute them needing to be address. … The purpose of this ordinance is to get the worst of the worst dealt with.”
Two people criticized the ordinance during the public speaking session. Scott Kimmich said that commercial properties in the area of Scribner Avenue and Connecticut Avenue need attention, as one is “pretty unkempt” and another “really disgraceful for our city,” as it’s the first thing people see as they get off I-95 at exit 14.
Diane Cece might have used the words “Deja Vu all over again.”
An op-ed she wrote in 2007 regarding an ethics ordinance could be used again with the blight ordinance, just by swapping out a few words, she said.
Council members said in 2007 that they had worked hard on an ordinance, therefore a reason to pass it, she said. The ordinance could be improved on, they said, according to Cece.
“I think this is indicative of a syndrome here, the something is the good enough syndrome,” she said.
The blight ordinance, and its cousin, an ordinance requiring landlords to register with the city, passed easily.
“It’s certainly a good start to get more of a discussion going and get more meat and potatoes in it,” Councilman Warren Peña said, acknowledging that he was echoing many other council members. “Some aspects of it are a little ambiguous… I think it’s a good foundation to move forward.”
The ordinances becomes effective on Jan. 1. Blight is defined as a condition that poses a serious or immediate danger, a lack of adequate maintenance and property that has been cited for two or more code violations, which have not been corrected and are not in the process of appeal. The ordinance specifically mentions missing or boarded windows, rotting or missing portions of walls, roof or floors; missing siding; fire damage; garbage piling up and abandoned cars.
Written warnings that are not heeded within the time period specified will be followed by a citation, which carries a $100 a day fine. Unpaid fines will constitute a lien on the property. The city can also cure the blight itself if nothing is done within 30 days. Those costs will also constitute a lien.
The landlord ordinance fine of $250 or the first violation and a fine of $1,000 for any subsequent violation.
Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-at large) said the landlord ordinance isn’t perfect.
“You know, our Constitution was created so you can create amendments,” he said. “I think what we needed to do was get something on here and then go back and let’s revise it and tweak it. Because if we wait around for the perfect document this two-timer may pass.”
Cece had said she had hoped the council would pattern an ordinance modeled after Stamford’s blight ordinance. Geake said such an ordinance would cost “thousands.”
Councilman Bruce Kimmel said the Stamford ordinance is very complex, and would be very expensive and implement properly. Committee members studied about a dozen ordinances from other cities and towns, he said.
“We wanted to go from having nothing,” he said. “We wanted to take a first step. It’s been very, very difficult to get a blight ordinance for many years, for a number of reasons. So this is focused. It deals with very clear, visible problems and we are pretty sure it will work.”
Councilman Matt Miklave (D-District A) said it was a good start, but expressed skepticism.
“I find myself in exactly the same position here that we were in when we passed the ethics ordinance in 2007, which was an imperfect ordinance, where there were pledges that we would continue our efforts to revise it and make it more enforceable,” ” he said. “This council and prior councils simply failed in doing so.”
The Democratic caucus proposed two last minute amendments.
The Democratic caucus asked for two changes to the blight ordinance, after conferring with Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann during a recess. Minority Leader David Watts requested that words be added to specify that violators be given information and possible assistance.
“We want to send a message that we are not out there to punish people we are there to help people,” he said.
He also questioned the language regarding a hearing officer. While the mayor would appoint such an officer in the original wording of the ordinance, Watts requested that such an appointment would be approved by the council, and perhaps be a lawyer.
Mayor Richard Moccia responded in a testy way.
“It would be helpful if this had been presented at the ordinance committee prior to tonight,” he said.
McCann said the language would not only be benevolent but would also serve a purpose, as city attorneys could say in court that a violator had been given every opportunity.
Watts dropped the desire for council approval, but McCann added that a hearing officer would be a standing member of the Connecticut Bar Association. The amendment passed.
Councilwoman Anna Duleep (D-at large) recused herself from the vote on the advice of Corporation Counsel Robert Maslan, as a property owned by her mother could be considered blighted.
Everyone present voted for the blight ordinance. Council members Michelle Maggio (R-District C) and McCarthy (R-District E) were absent.
Common Councilman Fred Bondi (R-At large) abstained on the landlord registration vote. Later, he urged the council to work on an ordinance for commercial properties.
“That’s a big problem,” Bondi said. “I think the ordinance committee should work on that next and do that diligently. .. I think there’s a lot of commercial properties in this city that need to be looked at and taken care of.”