Planning Director Warns Nuisance/Demolition Ordinance May Stretch Staff

by Micheal Bielawski

MONTPELIER — According to Planning and Community Development Director Michael Miller, the proper enforcement of a recently proposed nuisance zoning ordinance may not be possible, as their current staff is already stretched out with its current workload.

This had been mentioned before by Miller at the April 26 City Council meeting, but Miller further reiterated it in a memo to the council, and again it was a topic at last Wednesday’s council meeting.

The idea behind a nuisance ordinance is that if an old building is allowed by the owner to deteriorate, creating safety hazards and/or bringing down property values, the city would be able to take further action beyond just the initial quick repairs that are usually done under today’s rules — including demolition.

One of the primary properties that appears to be prompting this ordinance is the old Brown Derby restaurant adjacent to the Econo Lodge building. Many city leaders want to get rid of it, but their current zoning rules just don’t allow for that.

“It is clearly a blight on the neighborhood and finding a solution to get this area cleaned up is important,” wrote Miller to the council. “We have rules in place to enforce and require abandoned buildings to be safe and secured but we do not have the power to require the demolition of those structures.”

Miller states it seems obvious to him that the intent of this ordinance is to provide the city with the tools to actually bring down a structure, via condemnation or enforcement actions.

In his memo, Miller said that his concern is that the new tasks would “carry heavy administration burdens especially when combined with the real possibility that other properties in the city will also be eligible for enforcement action.”

Chris Lumbra is the city’s current building inspector, and Miller holds high regard for his qualifications and his work. Furthermore, he said Lumbra’s primary responsibility to the city is enforcement of safety and fire codes and helping contractors meet project goals, not condemning buildings for demolition.

Miller suggested if the council is serious about taking on this new role to try and take down buildings, then they should consider hiring a new part-time professional who can focus in on this role.

At the start of the second public hearing at last week’s council meeting, Mayor John Hollar posed the question to the council, should this ordinance include allowing the city to take down buildings?

Council member Jean Olson said she’s OK with it.

“I think it’s an extreme measure, and I don’t think it’s anything that we would take lightly,” she said. “I do think it demonstrates how seriously the city takes some of these questions, so I would be in favor of including it.”

Council member Anne Watson reiterated that sentiment.

“It is an extreme measure, so how we couch that in this ordinance I think would be pretty important and setting some barriers and parameters. I’m not sure what that looks like.”

Council member Justin Turcotte said, “yes,” but with some extra caution built in.

“If you are telling someone to destroy a piece of their own property, I would be strongly in favor of kind of a 2.5 that builds in a little bit more time and attention to the development of this plan and how it’s administered,” he said.

With that comment, Hollar said that in the event an owner fails to participate in remediation to a complaint, only then would the city start to take action.

Miller’s memo goes on to list other properties in town that, were this ordinance to pass, would become eligible for action by the city, at least after a complaint. Those properties include 3103 Elm St. (three structures), Old Humane Society on North Branch Island, 65 Berlin St., 41 Northfield St., 24 Hubbard St., 5 Home Farm Way, 260 River St. (Grossman’s), Jay Street garage, 4-1/2 Sibley St., 12 Charles St., 14 Charles St., 97 Barre St., 244 Berlin St., 14 George St., 240 Spring Hollow, 12 North College St., 10 Main St. (City owned — former Association for the Blind), scorekeeper/equipment shed at the Little League field.

In his memo, Miller writes, “The Building Inspector should continue to prioritize his responsibilities for permitting, inspection and enforcement of the Building Codes. These impact the life and safety of the community and are a critical link to economic development. In particular we may have French Block, One Taylor Street, and CS project (in Sabin’s Field next to the river) all moving to construction in addition to the regular run of permits.”

As part of his memo, Miller also states the inspector (Lumbra) would continue to back up Fire Chief Robert Gowans as assistant health officer and recommends City Council add a part-time position to deal with the new nuisance ordinance. “As these quality of life (quality of neighborhood) ordinances are very important and will have beneficial outcomes for surrounding neighbors, the council should consider adding a part-time position to act as an enforcement officer for these types of ordinances. This would allow someone whose primary job is enforcement to fulfill these roles and responsibilities.” Otherwise, Miller writes, “As long as these ordinances are being enforced as a secondary responsibility of the building inspector, we will continue to fall short of our community’s and Council’s expectations.”

Another matter of discussion was if the city will be walking a fine line legally as it determines which of all these properties to pursue and which to leave alone?

“I’m a little bit concerned that we are kind of opening ourselves up to some legal issues where we are basically intending to have arbitrary enforcement of this,” said council member Rosie Krueger. “And that seems kind of shaky.”

Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser fielded this one.

“I don’t think it’s arbitrary, we know we’ve had a specific problem, we know we’ve had active complaints and so that would be our highest priority,” he said. “It’s kind of like, the police department has to prioritize enforcement on certain things sometimes and will have to let things go.”

There was a public comment from Kelly Weston, who said she lost a building she owns to a fire and didn’t have the money or insurance to deal with it. Fire Chief Bob Gowans took this one.

“There certainly are situations where people just don’t have the means to take care of the situation,” he said. “They are trying, but you know, they had a fire, it’s been destroyed, it needs to be taken care of and they don’t have the means to do it.”

He added that they will take these situations into consideration, and that they should be able to separate those who can’t deal with an old building from those who do have the means but just choose not to.

This was the second public hearing on this topic.

Michael Bielawski is a freelance writer for The Bridge. He can be reached at Bielawski82@yahoo.com.