Tag Archives: Lou Mall

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.)

Coming Soon To Westport: The Wadsworth Arboretum?

Hartford has the Wadsworth Atheneum.

If Lou Mall has his way, Westport may soon have its own Wadsworth Arboretum.

The RTM member has asked our board of selectmen to rename 11.84 acres on Stony Brook Road “the Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum.”

The proposed Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum is called "Stony Brook property" on this Google Maps Earth view.

The proposed Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum is called “Stony Brook property” on this Google Maps Earth view.

According to Mall, in 1959 Wadsworth sold land on the  corner of Stony Brook and Woodside to the town — for $1. It was purchased for a school, which was never built.

This property, Mall says, “is a priceless gift to generations to come.”

In December 2013, nearby resident Dick Fincher wrote his RTM representatives about the property. He described damage done during a 2009 storm, and expressed concern about the town’s liability to anyone walking on the land. No action was taken, Mall says, due to a lack of funds.

In early spring 2014, 1st  Selectman Jim Marpe asked tree warden Bruce Lindsay to inspect the property. He applied for and received an urban forestry grant. The Planning and Zoning Commission then designated the area as open space. Fincher and neighbor John Howe cleaned up the property, saving a beautiful Norway maple tree.

Land near the proposed Wadsworth Arboretum.

Land near the proposed Wadsworth Arboretum.

Now, Mall says, the land needs a name.

Wadsworth was born in 1887  in New York, and died at her Kings Highway North home in 1962. (Her great-granddaughter, Sarah Cronquist, lives there today.) Wadsworth was a philanthropist, artist and sculptor, and widow of industrialist Dudley Wadsworth.

As founder and president of the Lillian Wadsworth Foundation, she contributed to the Mid-Fairfield County Museum — now called Earthplace — and donated 62 acres to it.

She was also active in the Westport Garden Club, Westport Library, Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Connecticut Antiquarian and Landmark Society and New York Horticultural Society.

The land Mall hopes to name for Wadsworth is heavily wooded. Designated as “passive recreation” space, its location adjacent to Earthplace makes it attractive to nature lovers.

“We have an opportunity to make this parcel the blueprint for neighborhood and volunteer involvement of funding, building and maintaining open space in Westport,” Mall says. “We need to respond as Lillian did, with clear thought and vigorous action.”

(Hat tip: Doug Fincher)