BENNINGTON — Once again, the Select Board discussed a draft ordinance that would require vacant properties to be maintained by their owners. In January, Michael Harrington, Bennington economic and community development director, approached the board asking for direction in drafting such an ordinance. On Monday, he presented a draft, which the board chose to discuss again two meetings from now after some further work.
Chiefly, the board wants the ordinance to specify and clarify what properties it will apply to, be they commercial, residential, town-wide or only in certain districts or zones.
Assistant Town Manager Dan Monks said the way the ordinance is written now, it applies to all properties in town. He said that after extensive conversations, the group that drafted it felt this was the fairest route.
The board seemed to largely agree on this, but wanted it made clear, and to have the ordinance's goals stated in a preamble.
"The ultimate goal for what you have in front of you is to fill vacant buildings and spaces," said Harrington.
He said that while the ordinance applies to properties townwide, the focus is on "downtown vibrancy."
While the board was consulted in January, the process of crafting the ordinance has been going on for at least a year, Harrington said. He and other town employees have met with landlords, business owners, and realtors and the version being presented is what the town's attorney said is enforceable.
According to a memo given to board members, the ordinance, "Article 27: Vacant Property and Property Maintenance Ordinance," is designed to:
• Improve the overall vibrancy of the central business district.
• Encourage the renovation and occupancy of long-standing vacant properties.
• Discourage property owners from taking a "hands off" approach with their vacant properties.
• Support surrounding property owners and businesses that take pride in the look, tone and feel of their buildings.
The ordinance was drafted by town staff, members of the Better Bennington Corporation's Recruitment, Retention, and Expansion Committee, and town counsel. It will not be in effect until the town has held the required number of hearings and votes to adopt it. After that, 60 days must pass before it is in effect.
As drafted, the ordinance would require owners to properly maintain the exteriors of their buildings, including finishing, roofs, windows, and trim. They would have to fix "significant, visible deterioration," keep their properties clear of trash, keep the buildings up to building and fire codes, and install emergency access boxes to be used by emergency professionals.
Plywood can be used to cover a broke window, but after 30 days the window must be replaced.
Grass growth is limited to five inches and calls for trees and shrubs to be "properly maintained."
Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs said he would like to see that aspect removed. "In all seriousness, I think we can get too much into the weeds with this kind of enforcement," he said.
Vacant spaces within buildings be kept up to code and not allowed to deteriorate. A property owner would have the option of keeping to the code for whatever the building or space's last use was, or what it is being marketed for.
Harrington said a distinction needed to be made between spaces and buildings. A person can own a space without a building, but not a building without a space. This is to address large properties with multiple units, some of which might become vacant. One example is the former Putnam Hotel which has businesses on the ground floor, but the top floors are empty.
The ordinance also creates a registry of vacant properties, requiring property owners to supply the town with basic contact information. The building inspector must also be notified of when the property changes ownership or its status changes.
The building inspector can deem a property vacant if it fits the criteria, and then add it to the registry. Within 60 days of it being added, the building inspector will conduct an inspection of the exterior and interior and deem it either in compliance with the ordinance, or a public nuisance. The inspector can then set conditions to bring the property into compliance. The owner then has 30 days to bring the building into compliance.
If it is determined that the owner is not cooperating, the town can levy a fine of $250 per day, or file for an injunction in court. The ordinance does not stop the town from taking the matter to court sooner, should there be a need.
The ordinance defines vacant buildings as structures or buildings that are unoccupied — Or occupied by someone without the owner's permission — for more than 90 days. Buildings under construction or being substantially rehabilitated are exempt from this, but are held to the terms in their buildings permits.
The ordinance also defines "vacant space" as "...any 500 sq. ft. or greater portion of a public building (as defined in the State of Vermont Building Code), other than basements, attics, or utility rooms, that is unoccupied by any person or is occupied by persons not authorized by the owner for more than 90 days " That definition also has exemptions for space being rehabilitated or under construction.
— Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567 Ext. 115