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July 16, 2014

Dilapidated homes become county target

MILLEDGEVILLE — The Baldwin County Safe Property Standards Ordinance proposal's momentum halted Tuesday at the Baldwin County Commissioners' work session.

Instead, the board will form a seven-member county official, staff and citizen task force to develop a detailed property ordinance with “teeth” capable of handling blighted structure problems throughout the community.

Commissioners also discovered that the Waste Control Ordinance already on the county books has language to handle care of premise issues such as outside litter and debris mentioned in the controversial Safe Property Standards proposal.

County Commission Chairman Sammy Hall said the July 1 public hearing on the property ordinance proposed showed most county residents worry about dilapidated housing.

“That's a problem. We have to do something to the dilapidated buildings and get that in place now,” Commissioner Johnny Westmoreland said.

Environmental Compliance Officer Marion Nelson said Tuesday the Unsafe Building Abatement Ordinance was “out-of-date.”

“It would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible for the solicitor general to successfully bring a case to conclusion under this ordinance,” he said.

For 10 years, the county tried to deal with one person owning multiple blighted properties on Swint Avenue.

“The reason nothing has been done is because it has largely been a bluff, and he's called the county's bluff. They haven't been taken to court because the solicitor general feels the abatement ordinance is flawed,” Nelson said. “For the person that has financial means and just refuses, if there is not a penalty at some point that bluff will be continually called.”

Actually, the building abatement document references a “Standard Unsafe Building Abatement Code,” that according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs doesn't exist.

The discovery surprised Nelson and commissioners.

“DCA said it's gone away,” Nelson said. “My recommendation is to start fresh. Surely we can come up with a standalone ordinance dealing with dilapidated, unsafe housing.”

The county compliance officer said a penalty provision is a must for this new ordinance development process.

“(Nelson) can't clear up the problem if he doesn't have anything to work with,” Hall said. “Just going out to tell them doesn't work sometimes. You have to draw the line in the sand at some point.”

A misdemeanor or fine penalty would be a last resort. Several steps exist between notification of a violation and being sentenced by a judge.

Commissioner Emily Davis worried about those without financial means who could cross these ordinances.

Nelson said the county deals with hardship cases all the time.

Commissioner Tommy French said some individuals don't want to clean up their property or deal with a blighted home and others want to, but may not be able to.

“We are dealing with our neighbors. Some need more help than others,” Commissioner Henry Craig said.

Dilapidated, abandoned houses are “diseases” occurring in every district, according to Craig.

Westmoreland said abandoned homes are a big liability, and the county must protect the people.

Baldwin County has slumlords as well, French said. He hopes the board looks at all commercial and residential areas.

“We have to make a comprehensive policy. No one wants an abandoned house right next to their home,” French said.

Nelson also mentioned the county might have been misguided attempting to deal with care of premise issues through the Unsafe Building Abatement Ordinance.

The Waste Control Ordinance, currently in effect, has provisions Nelson believes will address “everything we want to address concerning care of premise.”

Owners aren't allowed to let waste or litter accumulate, according to the waste control law. It has nothing to do with grass height.

Historically, this provision was used to regulate unlawful dumping but seemingly can be directed toward property premise problems.

“There's specifically a penalty provision, which was one of the main hang ups with the solicitor's office. Under the abatement ordinance, there was no penalty provision,” Nelson said. “If the complaint is valid and bona fide, I think that we have everything we need under the Waste Control Ordinance.”

County Attorney David McRee told the board he'd run some “test cases” with the county court system regarding the Waste Control Ordinance to see if it could crack down on care of premise dilemmas.

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