Frederick offered tools to fight blight

The Asiana restaurant property at 123 N. Market St. in Frederick has been vacant for more than 10 years. This photo was taken in May 2011.

Higher fines, new taxes and even loss of property could await owners whose buildings remain in bad shape for a year.

Mayor Randy McClement's committee on blighted and vacant properties presented seven recommendations this week to deal with blight and neglect in commercial areas. The actions would encourage property maintenance and severely punish neglect.

Fines would escalate during the course of a year, and noncompliant properties would stay on code enforcement's list until all violations are fixed and everything stays right for at least a year.

If the property's condition fails to improve within a year, a receivership program could start, and the city might ask the court to appoint a third party to take possession and be responsible for maintenance.

Those would be the sticks in the carrot-and-stick approach the committee recommends.

The carrots include tax breaks for investment and property improvement; the greater the investment, the greater the tax break. Taxes that would ordinarily apply when investment increases the property value could be discounted, applied or graduated scale.

For purchasers of problem properties, liens and fines could be waived until the condition improves.

Only about 10 percent of the city's commercial property base is vacant, which is good news, the committee reported, and those vacancies are part of the normal cycle of business.

The 15-member committee includes residents, property owners and managers, and real estate agents. They believe more tools are needed to "force turnover" where habitual offenders allowed blight to go on, according to Kara Norman, executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership and a committee member.

The new rules are designed to address neglect caused by chronic lack of effort, not sporadic economic hardship, said Richard Griffin, committee member and the city's director of economic development.

"We'd like your support to actually start moving these forward," Griffin told the mayor and aldermen.

For some long-standing blighted properties, the one-year clock might have already started to tick, Griffin said. He has sent potential buyers and renters to some property owners that refuse to discuss the business options and let their property go unused.

"You can't force a property owner that doesn't want to lease or ... sell to do so," Griffin said.

The mayor and Board of Aldermen are scheduled to vote Thursday on several tax credit programs to encourage redevelopment and property investment.

Aldermen asked the committee to come back with a list of recommendations that can go into effect as soon as the administration chooses.

"This is a fantastic start," Alderwoman Shelley Aloi said.

"Change is coming, and we're looking for new ways of doing business," Alderman Michael O'Connor said.

The committee will now begin the second half of its mission: to assess vacancy and blight among residential properties and make recommendations.

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