Sen. Ron Young is taking a new approach to fighting blight in Frederick County.
Bills he presented to the Maryland General Assembly in 2012, 2013 and 2014 would have addressed blighted property statewide. But after three failed attempts to garner the support needed, he’s turned to plan B — presenting a local bill that would apply only to Frederick County and its municipalities.
The bill defines blighted properties as buildings that have been vacant or boarded up for at least one year, have drawn nuisance complaints and do not meet local housing code standards. As proposed by Young, governments could combat these sites by giving property owners three options:
- Sell the building at market price.
- Make repairs to bring the building up to code and safety standards.
- Be fined up to three times the amount of their tax bills.
Young, D-District 3, described the policy as another tool for local governments to use in the often complex process of addressing blighted and vacant properties. His offer comes on the heels of Frederick Mayor Randy McClement’s decision to reinstate the Blighted and Vacant Property Ad Hoc Committee amid growing public dissatisfaction with the city’s response to blight and code violations.
The 14-member committee of residents and city employees representing various sectors met in December for the first time since the original committee disbanded three years ago.
As part of its second round of work, the group has been tasked with examining how well the city implemented its recommendations from the previous period of work. Several members of the original committee have said the city failed to effectively implement those recommendations, The Frederick News-Post has reported.
Among the original recommendations, which the mayor and Board of Aldermen declined to adopt several years ago, was a fine structure similar to that of Young’s proposal, according to Steve Cranford, vice president of MaCRO Commercial Real Estate, who served on the original committee. Cranford has also returned to represent the commercial real estate sector in the newly reinstated group.
Cranford said the last committee discussed the need to make the fines the city levies against blighted property owners more effective.
They proposed what Cranford referred to as the “carrot and stick” approach. The carrot was the incentive to fix up the property by offering a degree of tax relief. If the property owner still failed to cooperate, the city could use escalating fines to bring down the metaphorical hammer, or stick.
Still, Cranford said fines would not be enough of an enforcement tool on their own.
“It’s got to have a lot more teeth in it,” he said.
Kathryn McKenzie, a residential real estate agent who participated in the original and the reinstated committee, agreed.
Without that kind of additional measure, the fines could simply pile up in the same way code violations might, she said.
“It’s not that I don’t agree with the idea of Senator Young’s proposal,” she said. “But that’s just a big stick beating someone over the head. It’s not going to do anything.”
The ad hoc committee also recommended a receivership program in which a third party would take responsibility for repairing or selling the property if the original owner wasn’t cooperating. The mayor and Board of Aldermen approved a new ordinance allowing the option for court-appointed receivership in March 2013.
Young said he hoped his proposal would give local governments a simpler, more effective alternative to costly, drawn-out court proceedings.
“Too many times, you get into all these conditions or lawsuits that just drags it out,” he said. “I like simple answers that work.”
But Alderman Michael O’Connor, the aldermanic liaison to the committee, faulted the proposal for lacking an appeal process for property owners. His concerns echoed those expressed by other legislators and representatives of the banking industry when the bill was introduced in previous legislative sessions.
“It’s hard for me to envision a process in which the courts wouldn’t weigh in if someone wants to fight the fines,” he said. “If there is a way in which the process can be streamlined without removing the rights of the property owner, I’m all for it.”
Young said he wouldn’t push the bill forward if local elected officials aren’t interested. As of Monday, he hadn’t heard a response from representatives of the city or county governments.
Elected officials in New Market and Thurmont had expressed at least preliminary interest in the policy, according to Young.
In an emailed response, Dan Hoffman, the city’s division manager of code enforcement, wrote that he supported any legislation that would help municipalities deal with blight.
McClement also indicated support for “any tool in the toolbox that helps cities fight blight.”