After years of debate regarding vacant properties in Frederick, one alderman has taken a step toward establishing a vacant property registry.
Alderman Ben MacShane introduced legislation Monday that would require property owners to register their vacant properties on a yearly basis with the city of Frederick, make them subject to annual inspections and establish a registration fee that would increase each year the property is vacant.
Mayor Michael O’Connor said that this is a step toward a long-term solution, though, and in order to see it through, they have to first address a receivership ordinance that could allow the city to have a third party manage a property.
Under the proposed ordinance, property owners would be required to register any vacant property with the city on a yearly basis. The registration fee would then rise each year the property is vacant. In addition to requiring registration each year, the property would also be subject to annual inspections.
“This is something that will address a problem that the city has been facing for a generation and that many of our residents, including myself, really demand more action on,” MacShane said.
MacShane’s bill, he says, addresses a long-standing issue facing Frederick.
As of mid-May, 159 properties were listed as vacant for the past year, 45 were vacant for the previous two years, 35 for for last three years, 16 for four years and eight were listed as vacant for five or more years in the city.
Still, as O’Connor pointed out Tuesday, MacShane’s proposed ordinance might have a way to go before ultimately being voted on due to the issue of receivership in the city.
In several instances, Frederick has petitioned the county’s District Court to appoint a third-party receiver aimed at managing a vacant or derelict property on behalf of an absentee or noncompliant owner. Before MacShane’s proposal would work, O’Connor said the city would have to modify its receivership ordinance. That modification could come as early as a public hearing set for next week, he said.
“We have to figure out how to track potentially vacant properties and define what ‘habitually vacant’ means to the city,” O’Connor explained. “We also have to evaluate the fiscal impact and the cost to the city. Our goal is to create incentives and disincentives to ensure property stock is being used at its best. This ordinance is another tool for how we can deal with the issue.”
Meanwhile, others in the community are still in a wait-and-see mindset while considering the proposed ordinance.
Kara Norman, executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, said that while she has been part of recent conversations with the Neighborhood Advisory Council and there appears to be a lot of support for the idea of a vacant property registry, the partnership needs to see more details before formulating an official opinion.
State Sen. Ron Young, a former Frederick mayor, said Tuesday afternoon that the idea to hit absentee or noncompliant property owners in the pocketbook was something he’s been supporting for at least the last couple of years.
“In the past, they would talk about putting a property in receivership or having the government buy it,” Young explained. “Then, you go to court and there’s all these problems. Mine is simply, it’s your property, you got two choices — either fix it up or sell it to somebody who will and if you don’t, we’re going to fine the heck out of you. If you fine somebody enough, they will [take action].
“[MacShane] is following that concept,” he added. “Whether it will be enough, I don’t know.”
According to MacShane, the city, over the last decade, has attempted to address the problem via multiple committees and subcommittees while never quite navigating a way to address the problem properly. His ordinance, he said, is a “synthesis of recommendations from prior groups, subcommittees and best practices learned from cities across the state from Hagerstown to Takoma Park.”
“I’m not trying to penalize property owners acting in good faith,” MacShane added. “At times, your property becomes vacant, a tenant closes or moves out unexpectedly, and I don’t want to levy penalties on people who are just going through the process of finding the next tenant. But there comes a point where a property owner just sits on a property and allows it to deteriorate. That’s why this registry would require an increasing fee.”
Details on the fees and inspections would be up to the mayor and Board of Aldermen as the ordinance passes through a proposed workshop and then a potential formal hearing. MacShane is optimistic that the ordinance can breathe new life into addressing a problem the city of Frederick has had for years.
“I expect very strong support from the public, and therefore a lot of support from my colleagues,” he said. “This is exactly the type of policy that the community has been asking for for years form the city. The city of Frederick is a fantastic place to own properties and it’s an amazing place to make investments, but we also need to ensure the safety and economic resiliency of every neighborhood in the city.”