Topsham mulls beefing up property maintenance standards

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TOPSHAM — The town is considering development of an expanded property maintenance code.

Under the code, vacant buildings in particular would likely be scrutinized for possible safety hazards and eyesores to neighbors.

But members of the Board of Selectmen were hesitant Sept. 6 to extend authority to issues such as unmowed lawns and chipping paint.

Complaints about vacant buildings in nearby Bath led that City Council in August to enact a stricter ordinance governing empty residential and commercial structures, requiring them to be safe and structurally sound. Owners of buildings either vacant or about to become so would have to provide the codes enforcement officer with the contact information of a person to reach should problems with the property arise.

The action spurred Topsham Selectman Ruth Lyons to ask her board to discuss the potential adoption and implementation of a property use code. Lyons would like to address certain buildings, but not place too much of a burden on property owners or those who have limited financial resources, according to Town Manager Rich Roedner.

Concerns about property maintenance have included grass height, broken fences and other aesthetics, but the town has not explored more restrictive rules governing such matters, Roedner said in an Aug. 21 Board of Selectmen memo.

He said he is aware of at least three buildings that have sparked complaints, but there could be more.

The board took no action last week, but instructed staff to examine building codes and state statutes to clarify what authority the town already has to take action on abandoned buildings.

“What authorities do we already have, to address some of the needs that have been identified to us, and beyond that, are there other things that we’d want to tackle?” Roedner said Monday. The town could look beyond vacant buildings to address occupied structures that are falling apart and are unsafe, he added.

The town relies largely on Title 17 under the Maine Revised Statutes, which has a section on nuisances and, within that, dangerous buildings.

“To adjudge a building to be a nuisance or dangerous, the municipal officers or county commissioners must find that the building is structurally unsafe, unstable or unsanitary; constitutes a fire hazard; is unsuitable or improper for the use or occupancy to which it is put; constitutes a hazard to health or safety because of inadequate maintenance, dilapidation, obsolescence or abandonment; or is otherwise dangerous to life or property,” the statute states in part.

Broken windows could be boarded up with plywood, Roedner said. That solves one problem, but doesn’t address neighbors’ concerns about aesthetics.

“It makes it a secure structure, but it’s still an eyesore to the community, (with) impact on the abutting properties,” he noted. “How far do you go?”

Selectmen mulled over that question last week.

“I have a lot of respect for people’s property and people’s property rights,” Lyons said, noting the importance of not treading on those. “However, when an owner of a property leaves their property in disrepair, that … can cause harm if children get in there, it depreciates the (value of) homes next to it greatly.”

Various neighborhoods have had this problem, and requested the board take action, she said.

Polling the board on whether it wanted to address vacant or occupied structures, members leaned toward the vacancies.

“Vacant buildings, in obvious disrepair,” Selectman Bill Thompson said.

Obvious “to whom,” Selectman Dave Douglass asked. “I understand everyone’s emotion about it, but when you go down this road, you’d better go down … with all your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed.”

“This is just the beginning of a conversation of derelict places that I’ve seen around town, and issues I see because of it,” Lyons said.

Roedner expects to bring the matter back to the Board of Selectmen within the next two months. If the town develops a proposed ordinance governing vacant buildings, or occupied structures also posing problems, the document would have to go to Town Meeting for approval – likely next May.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.