Blight Prevention Board: A Peek Behind The Curtain

For years, a row of dilapidated houses stood at the crest of the Post Road West hill heading downtown. With broken windows, holes in the roof and torn gutters, they were a sorry “welcome to Westport” sight.

In 2012, Representative Town Meeting member Lou Mall wanted to do something about them.

Two of the dilapidated buildings on Post Road West.

Around that time, a constituent on Partrick Road told Mall about a decrepit house across the street. It was in such disrepair, he could not sell his home.

Mall asked assistant town attorney Gail Kelly about a blight ordinance. She said there had been attempts to create one in the past, but nothing happened.

Mall took up the challenge. He and fellow RTM members looked at other towns’ regulations. With Kelly’s help, they wrote a 6-page proposal.

“I was thinking only of abandoned buildings. But we realized hoarding was a big issue,” Mall recalls. “So we included the Department of Human Services in the proposal.”

Some RTM members saw no need. “There’s no blight here,” they said. When they realized there is — in every district — they backed it.

The ordinance’s aim was to “protect, preserve and promote public health, safety and welfare; to maintain and preserve the beauty of neighborhoods, and to allow for control of blighted premises.”

It included definitions of “blighted premises,” “dilapidated” and other terms. (Click here for the complete ordinance.)

In September 2012, the RTM created a Blight Protection Board. The vote was 26 for, 3 against, and 2 abstentions.

1st Selectman Gordon Joseloff appointed 5 members. Steve Smith was named “blight enforcement officer.” Longtime resident Joe Strickland is the board chair. Public meetings are held on the 2nd Thursday of each month.

From left: Blight Prevention Board chair Joe Strickland; RTM ordinance sponsor Lou Mall; blight enforcement officer Steve Smith.

(From left: Blight Prevention Board chair Joe Strickland, ordinance creator Lou Mall, blight enforcement officer Steve Smith.When a resident complains about a blighted property through Building Department assistant Michelle Onofrio (203-341-5024) — it may have sat with unfinished Tyvek for a year, say, or the garage looks rundown — Smith heads over, and takes photos (on public property).

If it fits the official definition, the homeowner is notified. “The goal is to get compliance,” Smith notes.

Sometimes the owner remedies the situation immediately.

Sometimes not.

And sometimes the owner is hard to determine. Banks and mortgage companies — particularly those holding reverse mortgages — are particularly difficult to track down.

This home at 6 Ulbrick Lane is owned by a large company. An official blight complaint has not yet been registered against it.(Photo/Jack Krayson)

If the problem is not fixed — and if a resident makes an official, signed complaint — the property is put on the Blight Protection Board’s agenda.

At that meting the owner can explain the situation, including extenuating circumstances. Board members ask questions. Members of the public can speak.

“We don’t want opinions. We want facts,” Strickland notes. “We want neighbors to say how this affects them, where they live.”

About 75% of homeowners appear, Strickland estimates. Banks, mortgage firms and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are often no-shows.

Sometimes, the meeting room at Fire Department headquarters is filled.

Blighted house on Partrick Road.

There are many reasons — including social, emotional, financial and age — why a property may be in disrepair.

“This touches all aspects of Westport life, and bears on what citizens go through,” Strickland says. “They may not have the money, the health, the energy or the knowledge to fix a problem.”

That’s why other town bodies, like Human Services and the Police and Fire Departments — join the Building Department and Blight Board in addressing issues.

It’s satisfying work, Strickland says. “This board is the closest you can to citizens of Westport. We can help them that night, in a sensitive way. We’re here for the ‘blightee,’ as much as the neighbors.”

For example, a new resident grew concerned that a neighbor’s house was overgrown with vines, with garbage piled in front.

Investigation showed the owner was a hoarder. There was no oil in the tank — the owner, who had a mental illness, did not know it was needed — so for years, she had no winter heat.

Human Services helped her find services to take care of the property. A conservator was appointed, to help her make decisions. She moved back into her now-warm home.

(Hoarding issues are not addressed directly by the board, unless they are part of a blighted property. The board deals only with what can be seen from the street.)

Hoarder houses can be dangerous. But they are not specifically covered by Westport’s blight ordinance.

“That’s handled a lot differently than a bank in California that foreclosed on a property, and kept it on the books for 5 years,” Strickland says. “Michelle bird-dogs it to find the chain of owners, through layers of LLCs. But sometimes she can’t.”

If the board votes to declare a property “blighted,” they create a list of issues for the homeowner to resolve, with a timeline. Each month, progress is reviewed. The board can also assess fines.

If cost of repairs is a factor, the Blight Board works with Human Services to find a solution.

A blight complaint can be a last resort. Neighbors often try to help, Strickland says. They’ll bring in dumpsters, and volunteer their time. He understands the frustration of residents whose offers are rebuffed.

The Blight Prevention Board has heard 85 cases since 2013. Approximately 38 were determined to be blighted. Strickland cannot recall any follow-up complaints.

Smith estimates the satisfaction rate at 95%. Any dissatisfaction arises because “not everything everyone complains about is covered by the ordinance.”

Mall said the RTM deliberately stayed away from landscaping and paint, for example. “That’s very subjective. We didn’t want to weigh the board down.”

Strickland adds, “Some of these are Planning & Zoning issues — not our board.” For example, the P&Z regulates the number of unregistered vehicles, the size of excavated soil and log piles, and the amount of building materials allowed on a property.

A major misconception is that the Blight Board wants to “punish, embarrass or demean” homeowners, Strickland says. “That’s absolutely not true, for anyone.”

“That’s why we call even before going to a property,” Smith says. “It’s surprising how fast some things get cleaned up.”

Mall — the creator of the blight ordinance — says proudly that former RTM moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug called it one of the best regulations that body has passed.

He credits its implementation by Smith, Onofrio, Strickland and the board. “They solve problems, and improve the quality of life in Westport.”

At the start, he notes, “we had no idea what we were getting into. We were thinking about what a property looked like — not the financial, emotional and social aspects. But thanks to so many people, it’ been successful.”

As for the dilapidated properties on Post Road West, which spurred the creation of the Blight Prevention Board: They’re gone now.

And the property owner who could not sell his property, because of blight across the street?

After it was cleaned up, he had 5 offers.

(For more information on the Blight Prevention Board, click here.) 

(With your help, “06880” covers every aspect of life in Westport. Please click here to donate.)

21 responses to “Blight Prevention Board: A Peek Behind The Curtain

  1. Jack Backiel

    When I came up to Dan’s Compo Beach party a few weeks ago, I took a ride down Bowling Lane. ( That’s the street I’d like to get renamed to Backiel Farms Road because that’s part of the property my grandfather bought in 1910 for $600 dollars.) I met the wonderful, young lady from the first house on the left. The property is gorgeous! But the second house on the left was a bit shocking. I hope they’re fixing it up, or it’s going to be a tear down. I doubt anyone is living in it. For those who don’t know Bowling Lane, it’s a dead end street off Old Road with only a few houses.

  2. So all the recent stories of blighted properties feature residential houses owned by nested LLCs, estates or the Feds, on overgrown lots at the end of three private roads hidden from view (except to the neighbors). Ok, perhaps an exaggeration. What about commercial properties? In plain view. On Post Rd West. Can one nominate the two story Federal style disaster at or near 50 Post Rd West (it’s “available!”) across from Cross St?

  3. Joseph Strickland, Jr.

    The success of the Blight Prevention Board is the result of many competent, caring volunteers working together for a common purpose. I was remiss in not mentioning my hard working colleagues on the Board…Rick Burke, Jeff Steward, Lynn Goldberg, and Russ Blair….as well as the many Town employees, from many departments, who contribute as well. Thank you.
    Joseph Strickland, Jr.
    Chairman-Blight Prevention Board

  4. Lou Mall was a great collaborator reaching out to engage the Greens Farms Association for feedback on the plan. We helped review 8 similar blight ordinances from other towns, but none came close to the idea of engaging social services to help struggling homeowners resolve issues instead of being solely punitive. Many times homeowners that are “aging in place” lose the ability and resources to care for their homes. They need help instead of being slapped with fines. I agree with Eileen Fluge that this was one of the most thoughtful and well developed ordinances coming out of the RTM, along with the team who now administers it.

    Art Schoeller
    Greens Farms Association

  5. What about the Red Barn?

  6. Carl Addison Swanson, '66

    The house at 22 North Maple has been in deplorable condition creating health and fire concerns for neighbors and the homeowner for 20 years. The Blight Commission has not done anything. Worthless bureaucracy in my mind. Complaints should be referred to the Town Attorney for judicial consideration as to the extent of the hazard and the possible condemnation of the property. Certainly they need help Art but fine line between helping and enabling.

  7. Jo Ann Miller.

    It should be noted that the Blight Commission has little authority to do anything per the ordinance. They can convey civil penalties on the homeowner but if ignored, they just sit as a lien on the property without any enforcement. I have seen paint and dumpsters offered to any offender but nothing much done. While I feel for those distressed, I am also a realtor and realize the affect of a blight house on any market value as well as the health/safety of neighbors.

  8. did something change this week? since when is 6 ulbrick owned by a large company? its owned by Glenn Manigault who is tied to quite a mess, possibly fraud, mentioned and discussed in several of your blog posts…

  9. Spanky Giddings, FP, '82

    These guys on the Blight Committee mean well but I wrote them 5 years ago on the 3 disabled VW bugs in the driveway on the house at Old Road and North Maple, nothing was done. They still sit there and the ordinance specifically mentions them as violations. How hard is it to tow the old cars to a lot and charge the owner storage?

    • Joshua Stein

      Crossing onto private property to take someone’s private property? LOL! Oh, How America is changing…

      • Carl Addison Swanson, '66

        Read the ordinance and perhaps some law before you chuckle about a governmental right to seize property creating a health hazard. The various municipalities have been repossessing disabled automobiles since the 50’s.

      • Jo Ann Miller

        Maybe you should Trump’s team of cronies, Joshua. They are arguing the same thing.

    • I went by that cape when I came up for Dan’s party. I think it’s been that way for a few decades. It’s right on the corner of Old Rd and North Maple Avenue.

  10. Jack Backiel

    Eminent Domain- the right of a government ,or its agent, to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation. The original house , on the corner of South Morningside Dr. and Clapboard Hill, was once smack dab in the middle of the future Connecticut Turnpike. My uncle had it moved to the South Morningside location after his property was expropriated. Private property sometimes doesn’t remain private!

  11. Carl Addison Swanson, '66

    Eminent Domain applies only to real property. The proper procedure to remove the disabled cars is to get a court order which would, in this case, be relatively easy,. Then the Blight Commission has the power to levy storage fees on the homeowner. Of course, they could have done that 10 years ago But I have seen some activity with a window fixed and a dumpster with 2 or the 3 VW’s gone. Maybe somebody is listening? Or doing something?

    • Jack Backiel

      What’s the Legal Definition of “Real Property”? The legal definition of real property is land, and anything growing on, affixed to, or built upon land. This also includes man-made buildings as well as crops.

      • Jack Backiel

        To be clear, I wasn’t suggesting Eminent Domain was possible with the house on North Maple Avenue. I was just relating a personal, family story. But it is also interesting why Eisenhower wanted a new series of highways built connecting the east coast and the west coast.

  12. Carl Addison Swanson, '66

    Ike built it for an evacuation route in case of nuclear attack. Folks in the Saugatuck area were not happy and then they proposed a connector from I-95 to the Merritt which would have taken our house on Cross Highway. In retrospect, wish they had built it farther north crossing the state up by Hartford? BTW, there are case books filled with what is a “fixture” to real property.

  13. Jack ( Former History Teacher) Backiel

    The Father of the Interstate System is the nickname given to Ike. Today if takes five days to cross the country. After WW II, it took three months to get from the east coast to the west coast. Ike saw the wide roads the Germans had and he realized if military equipment had to be moved from one coast to another, a three month drive would be inadequate. Thus he fought for an interstate highway system to move troops quickly if needed.

  14. Carl Addison Swanson, B.A. J.D. LL.M, M.F.A.

    Thanks for the confirmation Jack. Ike was a war hawk, spending half of each of his budgets on the military and then warning us about the Military Industrial Complex. But he was a decent chap and despite high tax rates (offset by many deductions), his major fubar was signing the SEATO Treaty in ’58 which sealed our fate in commitment to Vietnam. He also enjoyed a booming economy.

  15. Matt Lechner

    Officer Smith of the Building Department is himself a blight on the Town of Westport. Could he be fined by the Blight Prevention Board for what he has done to make building code enforcement the travesty that it is in Westport ? just another arrogant rotten hoodlum bully from Westport Town Hall.