The Legislative Council Ordinance Committee met Wednesday with two councilmen who expressed their concern that a new anti-blight ordinance the committee is drafting might be more expansive than necessary.
Councilmen Paul Lundquist and George Ferguson aren’t members of the Ordinance Committee, but they participated in the committee’s discussion concerning what should and shouldn’t be considered as neighborhood blight and what enforcement actions town officials should take.
“Do we truly need this ordinance?” Lundquist asked, noting that the Borough requested a new enforcement measure but this legislation would apply to the entire town.
“I just wanted to make sure that we’re not leading to something that has unintended consequences,” said Lundquist, a Democrat who joked that he risked sounding like a Republican by advocating limited government powers.
Committee Chairman Mary Ann Jacob said there have actually been neighborhood blight complaints by residents of all parts of Newtown, not just those from the Borough. The committee’s three main concerns were about safety, health and possible illegal activities.
Ferguson raised a question about the definition of what constitutes blight. The draft ordinance prohibits outside storage of unregistered vehicles and equipment that “are in an obvious state of disrepair and decay” and “no longer in a condition allowing them to be used for the purpose for which they were designed.”
But a neighbor of his has a rusty, old piece of farm equipment in his yard that serves as an attractive, rustic decoration. Ferguson said he would not call that blight, but another neighbor might.
Lunquist said some residents might keep an old, rusty, unregistered vehicle to do restoration work on it, but a zealous enforcement officer might take action against it.
The two councilmen and members of the committee weren’t concerned that any current town officials would take overzealous actions, but they discussed the need to write the ordinance carefully so it couldn’t be abused in the future by other personnel.
The ordinance gives the enforcement responsibility to an official designated by the Board of Selectmen to provide accountability and make sure it wouldn’t have to be rewritten if town departments were reorganized.
It also provides for fines of $100 a day plus attorney fees for violations. The enforcement officer would have the discretion to grant a six-month grace period to give the property owner more time to correct a blight violation, but not if the owner owes back taxes.
The ordinance also includes an appeals process. Historic buildings are not exempt from its regulations, but the ordinance does not override the authority of the Historic District Commission to halt an order the demolition of an historic building to address a blight condition.
Discussion on the ordinance will resume at the committee’s next meeting on Jan. 9. Council Chairman Jeffrey Capeci, who is a committee member, said he wants it completed and approved in time to go into effect next spring.