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