The city of Frederick took a big step toward solving a persistent problem last week when the Board of Aldermen approved an ordinance aimed directly at fighting blight.
As we have said before, blight is a huge danger to a city that prides itself on its historic district. As much as we Frederick residents love our downtown, with its 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, we have to acknowledge a fact: They require maintenance and upkeep. They cannot be allowed to fall into disrepair and end up vacant.
Some stores and houses have been vacant for years. They are a scourge and a danger to the economic vitality of the city. Everyone in town knows the issue, the most prominent of which is the former Asiana restaurant, which has been an open sore on North Market Street for several years, regularly listed by civic groups as the worst instance of blight in the entire city.
It is not the only example, just the most visible. The owners announce in 2019 that a Korean barbecue would open in the building in 2020, but the pandemic wiped out that prospect. As the city reopens, we wait to see if something else will move into the storefront.
The ordinance approved by the aldermen last week will give the city a powerful weapon to use against the owners of perennially vacant properties. They now will be subject to escalating tax rates the longer they remain unoccupied.
Under the new law, properties that are vacant for more than three full years would be taxed at twice the normal tax rate. The surcharge would increase every year, up to five-times the normal rate after 10 years of being vacant.
The tax rate surcharge extends the reach of an ordinance passed in November that requires owners to register vacant properties. Assistant City Attorney Rachel Nessen told aldermen the original ordinance differentiated between habitually vacant properties and others around the city, but it didn’t create different classes to allow for increased taxes.
Under Maryland law, municipalities are empowered to tax habitually vacant properties at increasing rates to offset the loss of tax revenue caused by declining values of surrounding properties.
The idea, of course, is to discourage owners from leaving their properties vacant. And it just might work if used in concert with other tools at the disposal of the city, and with aggressive enforcement by the city administration.
We need a concerted effort by the building department, as well as other city departments, especially economic development. To get property owners back on track, the city will likely need to use carrots and sticks.
The original ordinance defines a vacant property as a commercial or mixed-use building that has been completely vacant for more than a year or one in the city’s downtown or mixed-use zones where half of the first-floor area visible from the street is vacant for more than a year.
One of the ways the city will determine whether a building is vacant is by determining whether it has used any city water. A building with no water bill is by definition vacant.
Owners of vacant buildings will be required to register online each year after one year of vacancy. Buildings that are vacant for more than two years will be inspected each year.
The second year that a building is vacant will require a registration with no fee, the third year will include a fee and an inspection, and the fourth and subsequent years will require a registration, fee and the surcharge on property taxes.
It is a program of increasing pressure on the property owner, and it has promise. But we would also encourage the city to remember the need to help owners who want to work with the city to solve problems. Some property owners are trying, but they lack the skills or the resources, and the city should try to support them.
Other owners are just hanging on to decaying buildings, refusing to invest in the property and trusting that a tide of rising property values will lift them too. They need to be dissuaded from that course by punitive measures like the property tax surcharge.