Vacant property ordinance being mulled over by Select Board

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BENNINGTON >> The town is working on an ordinance that would encourage owners of vacant buildings to keep the properties maintained so they do not become blighted and harm the economy.

Michael Harrington, economic and community development director, said he was seeking from the Select Board some direction as to his and other town officials' work on drafting a vacant property ordinance.

He said he and others have spent the last year or so looking at what other towns do to keep vacant properties from deteriorating in appearance and falling into disrepair, becoming economic and visual blights.

"During the drafting process, it became clear that as a community we struggle with not only the vacant properties, but those that are occupied as well," he said, reading from a memo circulated amongst board members. "The poor condition of these properties impacts the public's perception of our community and the businesses that exist around them, eventually decreasing property values in town."

Harrington wanted to know if the board wished for the ordinance to address not just vacant properties, but occupied ones as well, and if it should also include residential property along with commercial.

The town does not have a general property maintenance ordinance, he said, at least not beyond what's required to protect public health and safety.

"Speaking for myself, I'm not looking for something that's going to police the height of someone's flowers, but at the same time we need an enforceable ordinance ... how many abandoned refrigerators do you need on your front yard? That type of thing," said board Chairman Thomas Jacobs.

Board member Sharyn Brush also wondered how the ordinance would be enforced.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the town would likely use the same methods to enforce this ordinance that it does for its zoning bylaws.

Harrington said graduated fines are being looked at, but also incentives for property owners to keep their assets up to standard. These could come in the form of qualifying for economic incentives programs like low interest loans or tax stabilization.

He said the town administration has also talked about waiving certain permitting fees if a property is well-kept, or creating an "impact fee" dependant on how a property is affecting the value of those around it.

Board member Justin Corcoran said the ordinance, for now, should focus on commercial properties. "I think the residential piece of it, I just don't know if it's a good idea at this time. If people are having problems with their primary residence, it's probably for a reason. It's not that they're choosing to neglect it, it's just a lack of resources to bring them up to par."

He said the commercial buildings in the downtown should be the focus for now.

Board member John McFadden said the question of what types of properties to focus on first could be determined by how many of each type there are.

Board member Michael Keane said he would like the ordinance to encompass commercial properties all around town, not just the downtown, and to address interior upkeep as well as exterior.

Jacobs said he would support focusing the ordinance on commercial, and said Harrington should also run the draft by the town's legal counsel to ensure it's enforceable before the board spends a great deal of time discussing it.

— Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567 Ext. 115


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