Blight: Wilton's collaborative approach to a rare occurrence

One of the concerns expressed by a resident during the first Lunches with Lynne session in July had to do with the responsibility of Wilton homeowners to maintain their properties.

The town of Wilton adopted a blight ordinance about 10 years ago, said Town Planner Bob Nerney, and although infrequent, Wilton has had cases of blighted properties.

“The evolution of blight regulations came into play a number of years back and it was used primarily in cities where dilapidated housing was unoccupied or in some instances, illegally occupied, creating safety issues,” Nerney said.

“What legislation did was give communities the ability to cite property owners and hold them responsible for these deteriorated conditions,” he added.

Nerney said Wilton’s blight ordinance does not typically involve aesthetic issues.

“For instance, if somebody allows their lawn to grow too tall or they have things scattered about their property like gas grills and bicycles, those are not blight,” he said.

“Blight would be broken windows and other types of conditions that may or may not lead to uninhabitable conditions — structural decay of buildings, water damage, insect infestation, and things of that nature,” Nerney explained.

Although they tend to be more rare, Nerney said, local and smaller communities throughout Connecticut are not exempt from blight conditions.

“Examples can still be found and because of that, a lot of communities throughout Connecticut, including Wilton, have moved to adopt a blight ordinance,” he said.

Blight in Wilton

In Wilton, Nerney said, blight is not regulated through zoning. “It is a process that stands on its own.”

“When Wilton created its ordinance, we pooled the resources of three departments to evaluate cases. That includes representatives from the health department, building department, and Planning and Zoning. It’s a collaborative approach,” said Nerney.

“Blight is a serious charge for a serious condition, so I think there’s sort of an advantage to having people with different backgrounds to evaluate specific incidents of blight.”

Nerney said the blight process in Wilton generally results in an order to the property owner, which can have “serious consequences.”

“In some communities, they can actually place a lien on properties,” he said. “We have not had to go to that extreme because once you enter into that fray, it can become a major undertaking for a community, and a costly one at that.”

In Wilton, Nerney said, the goal is to “try to effectuate compliance with the town health and building standards.”

“It’s not administered in punitive fashion. The intent is to use it as a process to resolve the matter,” he said.

Nerney said blight is “difficult to quantify” and the word can be “somewhat nebulous and subjective.”

“In Wilton’s case, it’s a process that’s used to try to resolve the worst of worst problems that might be occurring in the town,” he said, “and I would say there have been a handful over the years.”

Underlying reasons

In many instances of blight in Wilton, Nerney said, “we have found that there may be reasons underlying situations with blight.”

“I say ‘reasons’ not to excuse a situation, but the reality is that we have found that often times, there may be situations of depression that people experience,” he said.

In one instance, Nerney said, a man lost his wife and “basically fell into despair.” Other times, he said, things accumulate outside a residence as a result of hoarding.

“There are situations where there may be addiction or substance abuse,” he said. “A lot of people don’t think of Wilton as having those kinds of problems, but there are.”

Nerney said there have even been times when assistance from Wilton Social Services has been sought.

“Those situations do occur from time to time,” he said. “It’s complicated and kind of a much bigger picture.”

For the most part, Nerney said, when people “understand the seriousness of the issue,” they tend to “come around and work with the town to resolve the issues.”

“It may be not a perfect solution, and often times it is not,” he said. “You’re not always going to end up with the perfectly painted house and manicured lawn, but it gets it to a level where the property is secure and poor physical conditions are eliminated.”