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June 5, 2014

County desires safe property standards

MILLEDGEVILLE — The Baldwin County Commissioners are serious about eradicating blighted areas such as dilapidated buildings, unmaintained swimming pools and outdoor junk storage.

After Tuesday work session discussions with Baldwin County Environmental Compliance Officer Marion Nelson, the board agreed to move forward with a “Baldwin County Safe Property Standards Ordinance” by scheduling a public hearing.

“We've been talking about doing some improvement to our county and trying to clear up blighted areas,” Commission Chairman Sammy Hall, District 3, said. “Mr. Nelson has struggled to do something about that under our current ordinance.”

County Solicitor General Maxine Blackwell backs the proposed property standards ordinance as well, according to Hall.

County Attorney David McRee said Blackwell struggles making these types of cases successful in state court.

“(Blackwell) said this would help her do what she needs to do to prosecute the cases,” McRee said Tuesday.

The ordinance's purpose is to establish minimum requirements and standards for premises and structures in order to promote and protect the public health, safety, convenience, order and general welfare of the citizens of the county.

“This article shall apply to all commercial, office, industrial, multi-family and single-family residential structures and premises and shall constitute the minimum requirements and standards for existing structures and premises,” the ordinance proposal says.

Commissioner Henry Craig, District 4, said abandoned buildings and swimming pools are the major problem.

“You don't have to go far to any entrance to our community to see what I'm talking about,” Craig said.

Nelson applauded the commissioners for taking the issue up again.

“Over the past 10 years, we've been reasonably successful just through persuasion and perseverance, but occasionally we have property owners where persuasion and perseverance just doesn't cut it,” Nelson said. “At some point, you have to draw a line in the sand.”

The county's environmental compliance office receives numerous inquiries from citizens and realtors concerning blighted properties affecting nearby property aesthetics.

“It's very frustrating for me to say that I can't arrest someone for something that's not a violation of the law,” Nelson said. “I've got to have some tools.”

Outdoor motor vehicle storage of inoperable vehicles is a recurring county issue.

Nelson cited a current Meriwether Road situation “that continues to languish” and a Butler Road case years ago.

The Butler landowner had 25 cars scattered near his driveway.

“I took this guy to court as one of the first cases we had under the previous ordinance,” Nelson said. “An effective defense attorney requested a jury trial in magistrate court and that was the end of that. We were at a dead end.”

The current Meriwether Road storage of 16 vehicles hasn't been resolved in county court either, according to the compliance officer.

Nelson advocates individual property rights.

“At the same time if an individual's business or his habit causes the condition of his or her property to the point it becomes an eyesore and begins to affect property values in the whole neighborhood, I have to tell you I think the county not only has the right but the responsibility to say this is over the top,” he said. “We'd shoot ourselves in the foot not to have a way to deal with those cases that are the most egregious.”

Craig said property values are affected by everything within one block.

Commissioner Johnny Westmoreland, District 5, mentioned county liability for dangerous abandoned buildings.

“We've got to do something, and I think this is a good move to start,” Westmoreland said.

McRee said the ordinance focuses on safety issues.

The last time the county addressed this ordinance topic “there was a firestorm,” according to Hall.

“You are going to have some of that same conversation when you have a public hearing,” he said Tuesday. “I'd rather take the beating and do what we have to do. It's effective enough to give Mr. Nelson the tools to get this stuff cleaned up.”

The safe property ordinance hearing could make the next regular county meeting agenda June 17.

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