‘Not quite it’ after 8 years

Housing maintenance standards measure sent back to Planning group

stillwaterEight years of work on an ordinance regarding minimum housing maintenance standards and a vacant home registry went back to the Stillwater Planning Commission after the City Council tabled first reading of the measure Tuesday night.

The ordinance, which the city has worked on for eight years, has two purposes: help the city in mitigating problems associated with vacant houses by requiring owners of vacant properties register them so problems can be efficiently communicated and resolved and provide minimum exterior maintenance standard for residential structures. The maintenance inspection portion of the measure would be contracted with a private building inspector and be enforced by tickets.

The proposed ordinance is the result of a few properties in the city that have been vacant for years and fallen into disrepair. The city has no tool or method to handle those properties.

The proposed ordinance states that if the property is vacant for more than six months, its owner would have to register the property for an annual $1,000 fee.

Community Development Director Bill Turnblad said the Planning Commission feels more work needs to be done on the ordinance about defining a vacant building, possibly extending the vacancy period because of residents who travel during the winter and if a registration fee is necessary if people maintain their vacant property.
Turnblad added that the planning commission wants the council to provide direction about the committee’s concerns.

“I like the spirit of what you’ve accomplished, but this first reading to me seems a bit overreaching,” Councilman Tom Weidner said. “My concern is for people who are stuck in probate or trying to sell their home. Do they need to be required to pay that $1,000 charge.”

Other council members added that there are some people who can’t afford to make the improvements on the house due to their financial situation and how would the city deal with that. Turnblad said the Planning Commission had considered that as well and had thought of possibly including an exemption in the ordinance for people in that situation. He also said there were some county programs that people could be referred to.

While other council members suggested that maybe the existing nuisance housing ordinance could be given more of a bite.

“I live next to one (house),” Councilmember Ted Kozlowski said. “It is more of a nuisance. I don’t know if it is vacant, but it is a nuisance so it might be good to give the existing nuisance ordinance a little bit of teeth.”

According to Mayor Ken Harycki, all but one of the houses that the city knows about that are in disrepair are occupied to their knowledge. So he wants to know how to define the the vacant and abandoned part of the ordinance.

“It’s about how we make that distinction, what are we looking for in the ordinance it’s not a blanket thing and right now we’re making subjective decisions.” said Councilmember Doug Menikheim.

“That is what staff has been looking for for quite awhile,” added City Administrator Larry Hansen. “The general agreement is that this reading is not quite it, it’s too punitive to some who haven’t done anything wrong, we wanted you to know we were working on it and hear some comments from the council to help guide us.”

“I think it’s a good start.” Menikheim said.