Town considers establishing a ‘blight fund’

Kendra Baker photos
At the Board of Selectmen’s June 18 meeting, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice brought up the idea of establishing a “blight fund” to help the town pay for legal expenses associated with blight cases.

Vanderslice said there are two routes the town can take when a property owner fails to resolve issues of blight — one being foreclosing on blighted homes. The other, she said, involves actions that each require court authorization.

“You can be reimbursed, but the last time we did this … the courts actually reduced significantly what we were given versus what we were entitled to,” said Vanderslice, noting that the process is “expensive.”

“The idea is that we collect fines, put them into this fund — we do the initial seeding of this fund, then we collect the fines, and then we use that money to continue to deal with blight — and if you’re lucky, you break even.”

Wilton has a blight enforcement team, consisting of three blight enforcement officers — Health Department Director Barry Bogle, Chief Building Official Robert Root, and Zoning Enforcement Officer Timothy Bunting — and Social Services Director Sarah Heath, who was added to help the officers and provide an additional administrative element.

Wilton’s blight enforcement team meets “at least once a month,” said Vanderslice, and “has been successful” in addressing and resolving issues of blight in town.

“At the time the team was formed, there were 13 properties to be investigated for blight,” Vanderslice told The Bulletin.

Since last year — when the town’s procedures for addressing blight were updated — the team has remediated several blight cases.

Blight cases

As of June 18, the team was “addressing nine properties,” according to Vanderslice, one of which is 239 Olmstead Hill Road.

The 1.86-acre property, featuring a 10-room Colonial-style home and a shed, has been owned by the Astoria Federal Mortgage Corporation since March 2012, according to Vision Government Solutions.

According to Vanderslice, the property had “both health code and blight issues.”

The bank has been cited under the health code, she said, and the town is “hopeful that the health citation alone will move the bank to take care of the situations so we don’t have to go through the long [blight] process.”

“Just this past week, cleanup activity has occurred in response to efforts on the part of the Wilton Health Department,” Vanderslice told The Bulletin on July 24, adding that the property is “beginning to look better.”

Similarly, Vanderslice said at the Board of Selectmen meeting, another blighted property in town has been cited for a zoning violation in hopes that it will “cause [the owners] to move forward.”

The town has taken three properties “all the way through the entire process,” said Vanderslice, and “had to have a judgment lien against them.”

Vanderslice said there’s a property in town where there’s been “no activity” on the part of the owner to resolve blight issues.

“Where I see that one also going is to a lien,” she said.

New approach

Vanderslice said the town has made “a commitment to resolving the blight issues in town.”

“Working with town counsel, a blight manual was prepared. A blight team was assembled, blight training was held, [and] status meetings are now held,” she said.

“How we are handling this is a new approach, so I can’t say how or how many were addressed in the past — though some of these properties have a history of the owner performing just enough work to bring the property into compliance and then allowing it to fall out of compliance again.”

When the town is notified of potential blight, the blight enforcement team “attempt[s] to investigate,” said Vanderslice. “The blight officers must see the blight for themselves, which is not always easy or possible if it is in the back of the yard, as a blight officer cannot trespass onto the property.”

She said even neighbors who report the blight “are not always willing to allow the blight officer onto their own property to view the neighbor’s property.”

The blight process in Wilton is “based on state statutes” and involves “a number of actions” on the town’s part, said Vanderslice. “Each action has associated requirements and typically there are required time intervals between each action,” she said.

Blight cases are “complex,” said Vanderslice, and “typically more than one factor contributes to the situation.”

“The goal of the team is to resolve the blight in a comprehensive manner, which not only benefits the community, but also is an overall benefit to the property owner,” she said.

Wilton’s Blighted and Unsafe Premises Ordinance can be found in the town code, available in the town clerk’s office at town hall.