BATH — The City Council next week is expected to vote a second and final time on stricter rules governing vacant residential and commercial buildings in the city.
“We’ve had a number of complaints about vacant buildings, and these are buildings where no one is living in the house,” City Manager Peter Owen said July 11, when the council granted the ordinance first passage.
The buildings may be owned, and the owners may be paying real estate taxes, he noted. But the city lacks an ordinance to deal with unoccupied buildings unless they pose a hazard. The council rejected a prior proposed set of rules because they were “too heavy-handed,” Owen said.
“Bath did not want to get into … policing the height of people’s grass and whether the fences had recently been painted,” he explained. “But we do have buildings that are affecting (neighboring) housing values, and that’s because we may have broken windows, we may have holes in the roof. … This (ordinance) is an effort to try to address those issues.”
The proposed ordinance – available at City Hall and posted as part of the July 11 council agenda section at cityofbath.com – defines a vacant building as being unoccupied for more than 30 days, with the owner or mortgage holders having no concrete plans or timeline for it to be occupied again.
Since someone going to Florida for six months in the winter plans to return, their home would not be considered vacant.
Roofs would have to be “structurally sound,” and doors and windows “substantially weather tight” to prevent animals such as birds from entering. All exterior doors of vacant structures that could be dangerous to emergency responders have to be placarded. Fences, barriers, exterior walls, chimneys, smokestacks, roofs, decks, porches, balconies, signs, awnings, fire escapes and ductwork must also be structurally fit.
Owners of buildings either vacant or about to become so would have to provide Codes Enforcement Officer Scott Davis with the contact information of a person to reach should problems with the property arise. Codes enforcement and fire officers must have access to the buildings in order to ensure ordinance compliance, building condition, and any hazards to emergency responders.
“Some of these buildings, the roofs are caving in,” Davis told the council. “One on High Street’s missing the floor. You walk in the front door, you’re in the cellar.”
In cases of violation, Davis would serve a written notice mandating corrective action be taken within 30 days. If they fail to comply, building owners would incur penalties each day they are in violation as well as injunctive relief, in accordance with state statute.
The ordinance was vetted by the city’s Community Development Committee and staff “to try to come up with something that we thought would be reasonable that would address some of the concerns of vacant properties,” Owen said.
Councilor Phyllis Bailey, who sits on the committee, noted that the rules are not about appearance, but rather security and safety, particularly for emergency personnel.
The city has a registry of about 35 vacant properties, of which eight are the most egregious, with holes in the roof and plywood on the windows, Davis said.
“As these buildings come to my attention I’ll get with the owner and cause them to give us what we need to make this work,” he said.
The council meets Wednesday, Aug. 1, at 6 p.m. in City Hall.
Vacant buildings that have fallen into disrepair in Bath, like this house on Willow Street, have prompted the City Council to consider stronger rules governing such situations.