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Hull, Walpole try to address blighted properties

Former chief urges shakeup

Walpole and Hull will decide next week whether to take a tougher approach toward wiping out the visual blight and public-safety risk that can result when buildings are left unoccupied.

In Walpole, an abandoned-building bylaw has been the subject of more than 18 months of study, according to its author, Selectman Michael Berry, a lifelong resident of the town.

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Several towns away, a foreclosed-properties bylaw has been “kicked around’’ by Hull officials for the past few years, according to Town Manager Philip Lemnios.

Both measures are ready to move forward at town meetings on Monday.

If the measures win approval, Walpole and Hull will join Brockton, Randolph, and Worcester, where similar laws are already on the books.

“These bylaws are more common in urban areas, but blighted and abandoned properties can be in any community,’’ Berry said. “Just driving around town, I have noticed an increasing number of properties that are not only eyesores, but safety hazards.’’

Berry said the Walpole bylaw would “provide the building inspector with tools for intervention before the properties reach the point of complete deterioration.’’

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The bylaw targets owners of abandoned properties where local building inspectors have found substantial physical distress, such as broken windows or doors, fire damage, collapsed roofs, or accumulations of debris. Owners would be required to register the properties with the town and put together plans to remedy the problems.

For properties that remain on Walpole’s registry longer than 90 days, yearly fees of $100 would be charged to cover the town’s monitoring costs. Owners who refuse to address violations can be fined. And if the town must ultimately do the maintenance work, a lien would be put on the property to cover the cost.

“We tried crafting this in a way that makes sense for Walpole,’’ Berry said. “We looked at the problem and shaped the bylaw to fit our needs.’’

The goal is to get properties up to code, not to fine their owners, Berry said.

“Some have said it doesn’t go far enough, but it’s a step in the right direction because it gives us the right to intervene,’’ he said.

Hull’s town manager said his town’s proposed bylaw would require all owners of foreclosed properties to post bonds of not less than $5,000 to ensure their properties are maintained.

“The owners are primarily financial institutions,’’ Lemnios said. “A portion of the bond will be kept by the town for monitoring.’’

The Hull proposal was modeled after Worcester’s. “It’s been kicked around for the past couple years,’’ Lemnios said.

Last fall, Brockton enacted an ordinance, now being implemented, that requires all owners of vacant properties, both commercial and residential, to register with the city annually. The owner has 90 days to register once a property is vacant. Registration is $150.

Brockton’s annual fee for the first year a property remains on the abandoned list is $300. The fee can go up to $1,500 for three or more years.

“That’s an incentive for owners to get the properties fit and filled,’’ said Jim Plouffe, Brockton building inspector. “The registration money goes into an account that pays for property repairs when the owner doesn’t do them. A lien for the maintenance cost is then put on the property.’’

Plouffe said vacant buildings must be maintained to city standards. Owners can be fined $300 per day, up to $9,000, for noncompliance. The Brockton Redevelopment Authority, working with the building department, has sent out 200 notices so far, warning vacant property owners they must register. To date, 50 have done so.

“The program is in its infancy, but I think it’s going well,’’ Plouffe said.

Randolph’s bylaw for abandoned buildings, enacted in December 2008, is one of the state’s oldest. Under the regulations, a Code Management Task Force - consisting of public safety, building, and health departments, as well as the town manager - oversees a registry of abandoned buildings. Registration fees begin at $500 and rise to $3,000.

“The bylaw has resulted in a big improvement,’’ said John McVeigh, Randolph’s director of public health. “Right now, we have 100 properties registered.

“We’ve also noticed the bylaw has made banks more vigilant,’’ McVeigh said. “They hire property management companies so the homes have a lived-in appearance.’’

Randolph has sometimes used Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Abandoned Housing Initiative for property owners who remain unresponsive. Under that process, a court appoints a receiver to take care of repairs and maintenance.

“We hope not to have to get to that point, but we have a couple properties right now that are in the pipeline for receivership,’’ McVeigh said.

According to Emalie Gainey, spokeswoman for Coakley, the attorney general’s office has pending and active receivership cases in 29 communities statewide, including Brockton, Fall River, Holyoke, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Randolph, Revere, Saugus, and Worcester.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.

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