Members of Frederick’s third unofficial blight committee believe the right tools already exist to address perpetually blighted buildings. Leaders just need to enforce them.
That was one of several recommendations members of an ad hoc group made to the mayor and Board of Aldermen at a workshop Wednesday.
The eight-member Property Revitalization Committee — made up of community and business representatives and an aldermanic liaison — met for the first time in April 2017 and proceeded to meet regularly for a year.
It was the third committee tasked to research blighted and problem properties and code enforcement issues within the city over the past several years. Its mission was to piggyback on the efforts of the previous committees and come up with recommendations to carry out the central goals.
The group broke into three subcommittees to address metrics and hurdles, beautification, and awards and accolades. Last month, committee members wrapped up their work and opted to dissolve.
“We didn’t feel that this needed to be a standing committee,” committee Chairman Tony Checchia said while presenting the final report. “We felt like the work is there and there could be action items taken from this.”
Most notably, he said, the action items include a recommendation to enact the city’s receivership ordinance on two long-dilapidated downtown properties: the former Asiana restaurant at 123-125 N. Market St. and the building that once housed That Cuban Place at 300 N. Market St.
“We feel the legal rights are there. It’s really the will,” Checchia said. “The receivership ordinance, from our interpretation of it, provides the legal means for the tool to be in the toolbox for the city, should the city choose to decide to take that action to the next level.”
The city’s receivership program was established through an ordinance in 2013. In 2016, it went through revisions that Checchia said gave it “more teeth.”
The program gives city officials the ability to take the owners of habitually vacant, unsafe and nuisance properties to court. A judge can either force the owner to make upgrades, or seize the property from the owner and sell it to a qualified owner with requirements attached to fix it up within a specified time period. The revision added to the language owners of condemned properties and owners of properties who have not made court-ordered repairs stemming from violations.
The two buildings the members named have infamously topped vacant and blighted property lists for years. Duk Hee Ro, the co-principal of Julia & James Properties LLC, which owns both properties, has been to court multiple times for various violations at both. And while most of the major violations have been addressed, the properties remain vacant and in disrepair.
Mayor Michael O’Connor and the aldermen agreed something needs to be done and the mayor said he has had conversations with staff members about it.
“We’re looking at what our options are,” he said.
Members of the metrics and hurdles subcommittee also recommended city staff members look into taking a survey to identify redundancies in the city’s land management code to help streamline permitting processes.
Checchia, a commercial real estate broker, gave an example of a recent issue that came up when a client, a condo owner, was ordered to install a water meter, which is technically not possible and should not have been part of that permitting process. A survey would help identify places where issues like that exist and prevent similar situations in the future, Checchia explained.
In the report, beautification subcommittee members listed a number of city properties that they believe could be spruced up, such as the East Street Roundabout, which members of East Frederick Rising are working on revitalizing.
According to the report, committee members also looked overall into a recently passed vacant property ordinance in the city of Brunswick and decided something similar was not right for Frederick. They discussed creating a disclosure form to let people interested in buying property in the city know all of the property regulations and codes they will have to adhere to in accordance with the city’s property and land management codes as well.
Committee member Rose Thomas, who joined Checchia at Wednesday’s workshop, said some property owners are not aware that they have to follow certain rules regarding details such as tall grass, chipping and peeling paint, and other aesthetic rules for there properties.
“Not all homeowners understand or realize there is a code they have to abide by,” she said. “And so by including that kind of information in a disclosure when they’re purchasing, it’s an educational opportunity and an informing opportunity just to try to help get that word so to help ease the code enforcement’s job.”