Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before — Frederick’s mayor and aldermen are working on a way to put a dent in downtown’s vacancy issue.
Like many of you, we’re a bit skeptical when it comes to hearing of yet another plan to fix this long-standing problem. Vacant properties have been a thorn in the side of the city for decades, and there have been plenty of attempts to get it under control. Just look at the site of the former Asiana restaurant on Market Street, closed for more than two decades now and often considered the poster child of the problem here. How can any location remain empty for years, people ask, and the city seemingly do nothing to end blight?
The question is a quandary for elected officials. Vacant properties present a real economic challenge, one where an empty storefront or two can have a cascading effect on nearby business. On the other hand, the laws need to consider property rights. Unless a property is a nuisance or a health hazard, there’s not a lot the city can do to force an owner to find a tenant. This conundrum, in essence, has been the reason previous attempts have not produced a lot of results.
The latest attempt comes from Alderman Ben MacShane, who wants to establish a vacant property registry. Under this proposal, property owners would be required to let the city know within 90 days of becoming vacant, pay a $50 registration fee and provide an inspection certificate to show that the location is safe. The fee would increase each year the property remains vacant.
MacShane’s steps come on the heels of Neighborhood Advisory Council 11’s actions this past winter. NAC 11 members compiled a list of buildings in their neighborhood that met the city’s definition of blight. Their list identified 60 structures that ranged from slightly run-down to verging on the need for demolition. Their report was submitted to the city aldermen in May, and that research appears to have helped MacShane in developing this novel approach to nipping blight in the bud.
The city, meanwhile, wants to put some oomph into an existing but never enforced anti-blight code. Passed in 2013 and revised in 2016, the so-called receivership ordinance enables the city to ask a court to put a blighted property under a third-party manager. But without a clear definition of what constituted an “unoccupied” building, the city hit the pause button. Under a revised code, a property may be deemed “habitually vacant” if left continuously unoccupied for at least four years, or by racking up at least two court orders or judgments citing city maintenance or building codes within a two-year time frame. But a vote on this measure has been delayed after Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak raised questions about potential loopholes in these amendments.
In the broadest sense, these ideas before the city should move forward. Adding to the city’s box of tools will only make it more difficult for property owners to let their buildings fall into disrepair. Enforcement will be critical as well.
But these ideas aren’t going to be enough. Building owners that maintain their properties up to local standards and codes can, by law, continue to keep them vacant. That’s where the city government will be limited and, in certain instances, explains at least part of the situation in which Frederick finds itself. It may not be the answer Frederick wants, but it does explain why the vacancy issue isn’t the easy fix many would want.