AUGUSTA — Frustrated by vacant buildings that are left unmaintained, unsecured and attractive to intruding varmints and squatters, city officials are proposing a new ordinance that would require the owners of vacant properties to register them.

The proposed ordinance would require such owners to obtain a vacant building registration permit from the city and pay a fee — of $200 for commercial entities, such as banks, or $100 for individual owners — and provide contact information for someone in Maine responsible for the property who could respond to building problems and notifications of code violations or other city actions related to the building.

The permits would last for six months, after which the building owners would have to renew them and pay the permit fee again.

Ward 2 City Councilor Darek Grant joined at-large Councilors Cecil Munson and Dale McCormick to serve on the Vacant Properties Committee, which has crafted the proposal.

“We were tasked with looking at vacant properties around the city, in particular foreclosed properties, that sat vacant for years and deteriorated and just become a sore sight in the community, and also a source of trouble,” Grant said. “A major challenge with a lot of properties that are foreclosed on around the city is finding someone to contact to say, “Hey, there is a broken window. There are varmints in the building.’ Enough is enough with some of these properties that just sit vacant.”

Councilors are scheduled to hold the first reading — of two required before a vote — at their meeting Thursday, which begins at 7 p.m. in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

Grant and other city officials said often when some large banks or other financial institutions foreclose on a vacant or abandoned building, they don’t maintain the property and can’t be reached by neighbors or city officials when trouble such as break-ins, damage, code violations or other problems occurs.

Nearly a year ago, resident Keith Ludden approached the City Council with concerns about a vacant property near his home in an otherwise well-kept neighborhood and asked the council to adopt property maintenance standards and enforce them. The house remains vacant, but maintenance has been done there in the meantime.

“Lenders are being allowed to game the system when it comes to property maintenance,” Ludden said at the time. “They leave the former tenants’ name on the deed, but the former tenant is locked out, so they can’t do maintenance there if they wanted to. And the lender can say, ‘It’s not our problem.’ I’d like to see the city explore some higher standards for property maintenance.”

City officials say such situations seem to be increasing, with more buildings in foreclosure and left vacant rather than being resold and reoccupied.

“I could bring you, immediately, to about three different tenement houses that are completely open and have been abandoned for several years,” Ward 3 Councilor Patrick Paradis said. “They’re abandoned, and there is more and more trash piling up.”

Any building owners found to be in violation of the proposed new rules could be fined a civil penalty, under state statute, of a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $2,500, with each day in violation considered a separate offense.

Grant said there was interest initially in also setting property maintenance standards for vacant buildings as part of the new ordinance, but the city staff advised against setting property maintenance standards only for the owners of vacant properties.

Another committee, led by Ward 4 Councilor Anna Blodgett, is working on creating a new property maintenance ordinance that would apply to all buildings in the city, both occupied and vacant.

“What this ordinance does is set up a registry, but it doesn’t really enforce anything,” Mayor David Rollins said as councilors discussed the proposal last week. “Without the (proposed) property maintenance ordinance, there really is not teeth to this.”

Some property maintenance standards are contained in the ordinance, but they are based on city building codes already in place.

Blodgett said drafting a property management ordinance will be a priority for her committee, and it could probably be done within the next few months.

The ordinance contains exceptions for people leaving their homes to live elsewhere temporarily, such as “snowbirds” who winter in Florida, as well as for vacation or resort facilities. It also exempts members of the armed forces on active duty. However, those building owners still would be required to identify a property manager and provide the city with a valid emergency contact phone number for the owner or property manager.

Resident Joe Riddick said he likes the concept of the ordinance but expressed concern that it would apply to viable properties unoccupied while they are for sale on the real estate market, as well as to building owners who may move out of their homes for building renovations that could take more than 60 days.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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