Selectmen grapple with blight foreclosure

The Board of Selectmen has held off on approving a policy on how to handle foreclosures on blight judgement liens.

Selectwoman Deborah McFadden asked the board to consider adding one more step to the foreclosure process. “The whole concept of taking someone’s property is so serious we need to raise the bar to accomplish that,” she said.

The board was expected to take action on the proposed policy at its meeting on Monday, Dec. 17. But instead, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said she will ask town attorney Mario Coppola to give it another review.

The policy would allow a foreclosure action to be started by the town after a blight judgment lien has been recorded on a property for one year.

Wilton has an anti-blight ordinance that sets fines for those who let their property fall into disrepair. A property is considered blighted if it poses a “serious threat” to the health and safety of residents. Examples might be water damage or insect infestation — things that may lead to uninhabitable conditions.

The blight ordinance allows residents 60 days to correct the problem after being served notice by a blight prevention officer. If property owners do not fix the problems within that time, they are assessed fines. A judgment lien is recorded if the fines aren’t paid.

McFadden explained that she is not against the town taking foreclosure actions on blighted properties, but she wants one more layer added to the process. “We have to look at the whole town and don’t want it to be full of blighted properties,” she said.

She said she is concerned about ramifications on individuals and foreclosing on a property too quickly.

“A government agency taking someone’s property is a really serious thing. There are two different types of properties — those that are empty where no one is living, and others where people are residing on the property. Sometimes they are tenants or have the least amount of resources in the community. We are a town that is noted for helping others, and this is the season,” she said.

Additional step

She then offered several ideas to consider for the “additional step” for the foreclosure policy.

“In situations where the residence is occupied, we could require the Board of Selectmen to have a supermajority vote or a unanimous vote or have a second vote 45 days after the first one,” she said.

Selectwoman Lori Bufano said she also takes this action very seriously and believes the involvement of social services can be kicked up to help owners of blighted properties.

Vanderslice explained that foreclosure actions are a last resort and do not happen quickly. “It’s usually a two- to three-year process,” she said. She stressed the town does not want to own the foreclosed properties.

“Before the action commences, we will have been working with these people for more than a year. Someone gets cited, they work on things, then they usually stop. Social services is involved in the beginning, and Kiwanis and Rotary are willing to come in and assist. The hope is to spur the owner to do something to address the blight situation,” she said.

She said she could go along with McFadden’s suggestion for a supermajority vote on the foreclosures.

Selectman Joshua Cole said he believes there are already enough steps in the policy. “No matter how much help is offered, if someone doesn’t want to comply, they won’t comply. At some point we need to force the issue,” he said.

He was also hesitant to tie the board’s hands so much that the foreclosure policy becomes ineffective.

“This could drag on seven or eight years. We need teeth in the enforcement or it isn’t a policy. If there is not an ultimate hammer, no one is going to take the threat seriously,” he said.

He added that starting or commencing a foreclosure action doesn’t mean it ultimately has to be executed.

Vanderslice agreed and said years ago, the town brought a foreclosure action and it went on for an extended period of time. She said the judge held it until the owner cleaned up the property. It was eventually cleaned up,” she said.

Enforcement of the anti-blight ordinance takes time, Vanderslice said. “It can take more than a year. Then there is a hearing. The hearing officer will assess the fine. If the fine is not paid, it  goes to court, then there is a judgment. Then a year from when the town gets a judgment, the board will decide whether to initiate the foreclosure. Even after it’s initiated, it could take several years and go to a judge. Then there is executing the order,” she explained.

McFadden called the Board of Selectmen “the tipping point” in the foreclosure process.

Selectman David Clune said he would be hesitant to make the process longer or have additional steps. “You could go with a unanimous or supermajority vote, but I’m a little hesitant about adding extra things that might make it complicated or too difficult for ourselves,” he said.

McFadden suggested another possibility — having a double vote on foreclosures. An initial vote followed by another vote 45 days later. “It’s good to have a cooling off period because this is so serious. It won’t add a lot of time to the process,” she said.

Clune said if there is a double vote, the time between votes should be shorter than 45 days. “Have the double vote at back to back meetings,” he said.

McFadden said she would favor a policy where the board has an initial discussion of the  foreclosure with a checklist of factors relevant to it, followed by a vote at the next meeting.

Vanderslice said the board will discuss the policy at its Jan. 7 meeting.

Editor's Note: This story was edited for accuracy.