Efforts to address long-standing issues related to vacant and blighted city properties will pick up where they left off with the revival of an ad hoc committee.
Frederick Mayor Randy McClement said Wednesday that he will reconvene the Blighted and Vacant Ad Hoc Committee created more than three years ago. City residents, former committee members and elected officials have called for renewed efforts to address long-standing blight and vacancy issues.
The committee — nine voting members and four ex officio, or nonvoting, members — formed in 2012 to recommend ways to regulate and create programs to help the city handle blighted and vacant commercial and residential properties, The News-Post has reported.
The committee disbanded after submitting its two sets of recommendations, most recently in December 2012.
Although the city implemented all of the committee's recommendations, some community members said efforts to combat blight have stalled.
"We're really looking for a higher degree of accountability from the city," said Darcy Richards, a coordinator for Neighborhood Advisory Council 11. "There's degrees of effectiveness."
Kathryn McKenzie, a member of the 2012 committee and a residential real estate broker, said some recommendations could have been better implemented.
Specifically, McKenzie pointed to the group's recommendations for creating incentive and assistance programs to give property owners the necessary financial support to bring properties up to code.
Others named properties plagued by habitual vacancies, but not necessarily blighted in terms of code violations, as an issue deserving more attention. Several mentioned the former Asiana building at 123-125 N. Market St. as an example. All violations on the property have been addressed, according to the city enforcement database, but the building remains vacant and without basic utilities required for occupancy.
"Buildings come off the watch list all the time because somebody painted or replaced the window, but you still have that vacancy," said resident Bruce Albaugh, also a NAC 11 coordinator. "The problem I see is that the city hasn't really looked at or taken a strong enough approach to habitual vacancy."
Ned Bond, a local resident and activist in community-driven efforts to combat blight, agreed in an interview Thursday.
"It's like somebody took a bunch of rotten wood and put a coat of paint on it," he said.
Tamar Osterman, another member of the original ad hoc committee, suggested separating the issues of vacancy and blight. Osterman said vacancy should be addressed through an economic development lens, while blight could be reviewed by a committee specific to that topic.
Call for a new tool
Discussion of the problems and possible solutions with blight and vacancy issues stemmed from a new committee Alderman Josh Bokee proposed. Bokee on Wednesday outlined the details of his suggestion for a Blighted and Vacant Properties Review Board.
Unlike the ad hoc committee, which was intended to dissolve after making recommendations, Bokee's proposal called for a long-term group tasked with reviewing and making recommendations on both vacant and blighted properties.
As proposed, the seven-member board would include two at-large city residents and one each from the following fields: residential real estate, commercial real estate, community development, banking and finance, and commercial law. The board would review the properties on the city's blighted property and property watch list at least quarterly. It would also submit an annual report examining the scope of blighted and vacant city properties through a more comprehensive lens.
Bokee described his proposal as an additional tool for the city to address a complex issue while involving the local community.
Other members of the Board of Aldermen, however, expressed concern with various aspects of this committee. Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak said she didn't oppose the idea, but wanted to clarify that as a recommending body, the committee would be powerless to effect actual change.
As elected officials, Kuzemchak said, she and the other aldermen and mayor bore responsibility for making that change happen.
"Let's just pretend there's a property downtown we've had complaints on for 15 to 20 years," she said, referencing the Asiana building. "If we haven't done something to put legislation in place that helps with that issue ... that's on us. That's absolutely on us."
Alderwoman Kelly Russell cautioned that the proposed committee could be a slippery slope for what ad hoc committees can address for private property owners. She said she was concerned with the amount of city staff time and energy needed to assist the committee.
McClement echoed her concerns, pointing to city codes and state regulations on code enforcement and blight as the authority to inform city action on the problem, not a group of local residents.
Ad hoc group revisited
As the liaison alderman to the prior ad hoc committee, Alderman Michael O'Connor countered with a proposal of his own — bringing back the original ah hoc committee.
As the creators of the recommendations, O'Connor said, these members could best evaluate the city's effectiveness in translating recommendations into action. And though they met three years ago for a short-term review, they may want to reconvene and continue their work, O'Connor said.
"I think if they were all sitting here today, they might very well have said, 'You know what? We shouldn't disband this group. Somebody ought to hold the city's feet to the fire, and we're the people that should do that,'" O'Connor said.
McClement agreed with O'Connor's suggestion. He said he planned to contact former committee members to determine who were interested in continuing the work.
At least two former members, Osterman and McKenzie, said they were interested in serving on the reconvened committee.
After the meeting, McClement said he was open to tasking the commission with also examining and making recommendations on vacant, but not blighted, properties. However, he said that in the last 10 years of city work and various committees that looked at the issue, there has been no consensus.
"You'll always find every group has come up split," he said.
Asked if previous stalemates were reason to give up, he added, "that doesn't mean you don't keep trying."
Richards declined to comment on the mayor's declaration to reconvene the committee, saying she wanted to wait until members began meeting again.
"If the mayor were to have followed their suggestions to heart [in previous recommendations], I think we would have gone a long way," she said.
Bond was more skeptical.
"He [McClement] ignored everything the ad hoc committee did previously," Bond said. "He can do that again."