South Portland closer to governing 'disorderly' houses

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SOUTH PORTLAND — After hearing Monday from mostly supportive landlords, the City Council is close to adopting sweeping rules to crack down on owners of noisy, dangerous or otherwise troublesome properties.

The “disorderly house” ordinance would create a system for the city to require property owners to address disturbances at their properties, and punish them if they don’t.

Under the proposed ordinance, most properties that require three police calls in any 30-day period would be deemed “disorderly.”

The ordinance counts visits for problems such as excessive noise, loud parties and more serious crimes, but ultimately police discretion would determine whether the types of calls that trigger the ordinance were significant enough to deem a house disorderly.

At that point, notice would be sent to the owner, requiring him or her to meet with the police chief and work out a plan to address the concerns.

Failure to address the problems, or a subsequent “disorderly” classification within three years of the first, could result in condemnation of the building and/or legal action by the city against the landlord.

The property owners who spoke at Monday’s workshop said they supported the ordinance, but had concerns about the notification schedule.

Many said they are often unaware police have visited their properties and that they’d like to be notified after the first police visit so they can try to address problems sooner.

“The key to making this work is communication and cooperation with the landlord,” said Jim Harmon, a member of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, who owns properties in Portland and South Portland.

Landlords were also concerned about what would constitute a “visit” by police. One asked whether a property owner could get in trouble if a transient drunk wandered past their house, triggering a call and a visit from police unrelated to tenants or the owner.

Councilors were hesitant to change the ordinance to accommodate landlords’ concerns. Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said landlords could easily find out whether officers had visited their properties by checking dispatch logs on the Police Department website.

“My concern is the police having to make 6,000 calls to South Portland landlords every week when the info is already out there,” she said. “I think that’s an unreasonable request.”

Councilors were divided on other changes floated during the workshop, such as changing the proposal’s minimum daily penalty for violating the ordinance from $1,000 to $500. Councilor Tom Coward said he’d also like to see the maximum daily fine drop from $2,000 to $1,000.

Coward said he is concerned about the fine amounts because he didn’t want the ordinance crafted in a way that looked punitive.

Other councilors said the fines were a last resort, to deal with property owners who refuse to cooperate with the city. City Manager Jim Gailey noted the provision in the ordinance that allows a property owner to appeal a “disorderly” classification.

“I don’t know of any municipality that really pushes for these penalties,” said the city attorney, Sally Daggett. “They just want the problems to be fixed.”

City Councilors are scheduled to take a final vote on the ordinance at their meeting on Monday, Oct. 3.

In other workshop business, councilors:

• Discussed how to fund repairs to the Liberty Ship Memorial at Bug Light Park. Rules attached to funds donated for the monument’s upkeep prevent the city from using anything but the interest accumulated on those funds, currently about $2,200.

On a recommendation by the city manager, councilors tentatively agreed to use undesignated surplus to cover the roughly $38,000 in repairs, while coming up with a plan, possibly to include a public capital campaign, to avoid that situation in the future.

• Indicated support for a plan to build a 100-foot tower at the West End Fire Station on Western Avenue. The tower would hold a radio transmitter and a remote-controlled camera system that would overlook much of the Maine Mall area.

Gailey and Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said there is interest from several cell phone companies who would like to place antennas on the tower, each of which would net approximately $2,000 per month for the city.

The tower would cost between $80,000 and $100,000 to build. With the cell phone company deals, Gailey said the tower could be paid off and start generating revenue within a few years.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.