Mayor’s proposal takes aim at blight
Task force to review penalties for neglect
Woburn is weighing steps to prevent residential homes from becoming nuisance properties because of neglect.
Mayor Scott D. Galvin recently proposed an ordinance requiring landlords of all residential properties that are vacant, in foreclosure, or occupied by people other than owners to register annually with the building commissioner.
In addition to paying a $50 annual fee, owners would have to certify that the properties were maintained, secured, fully permitted, and not the cause of a public health and safety nuisance. They would also have to identify whether the property was vacant or subject to foreclosure.
“In Woburn, like most cities, you don’t want residents who pay taxes and keep their properties in good condition to have their quality of life suffer because of an irresponsible bank that foreclosed on a property or an absentee landlord not controlling their tenants,’’ Galvin said.
He said the required annual registration would create a database that would allow the city to more readily force owners to maintain their properties.
In addition to proposing the ordinance, Galvin is establishing a task force to review problem properties and ensure compliance with the new rules.
The proposal would replace a narrower, existing ordinance that Galvin sponsored as an alderman in 2008. That measure also requires annual registration but only of properties held by mortgage lenders that are vacant or in foreclosure.
Galvin said that while it has helped the city stay on top of certain nuisance properties, the existing ordinance wasn’t enough, noting that it does not address problem properties that may be occupied or not in foreclosure.
“This ordinance is really meant to fill in the gaps and address different situations where you have a property that is run-down or creating some nuisance to the neighborhood,’’ he said.
A number of other Massachusetts communities, including Boston, have instituted varying registration requirements to deal with problem properties that Galvin said are similar to what he is now proposing.
Under the Woburn proposal, owners would be required to register with the city within 30 days of the initiation of foreclosure on any residential property, and within 180 days of a property becoming vacant.
Violators of the ordinance would be subject to a fine of $300 and an additional $100 for each week the violation continues.
From 20 to 25 properties are registered in the city at any one time through the current ordinance, according to Thomas Quinn, the city’s building commissioner.
“As it’s written now, it’s good and it works, but this will give it a little more teeth,’’ Quinn said of the proposed ordinance. “It benefits the safety of every citizen in the city and more importantly, the first responders who may have to respond to one of these properties.’’
Galvin said that with the economy still in a recovery mode, the City Council’s agenda often includes hearings on distressed properties.
“This is a way for the city to be more proactive,’’ he said. “The City Council has been proactive in its own right in scheduling these hearings, but I think we can assist the process and maybe cut off some of these hearings’’ by getting the owners to actively manage their properties and by monitoring the database.
Galvin said the task force - which will include the police and fire chiefs, the building inspector, the Department of Public Works superintendent, the health director, and a city councilor - will work together to address properties that are showing neglect.
Alderman at Large Richard M. Haggerty, whom the mayor has invited to serve as the council’s representative on the task force, said he is still reviewing the ordinance.
“Anything we can do to address blight in our city is a positive step in the right direction,’’ he said. “Whether the ordinance does that or not, I’m not sure yet. But I’m keeping an open mind.’’
Ward 7 Alderman Raymond Drapeau supports the plan.
“In my ward alone, we’ve had a few instances of houses that have become in disrepair and it’s hard to locate the owners,’’ he said. “Or sometimes they are foreclosed on and you’ve got to go after the bank because they don’t [maintain] them at a level acceptable to the neighborhood.
“It’s just an ongoing issue,’’ he said. “As economic times have been difficult, these types of situations seem to crop up more and more.’’
Drapeau said he feels strongly that any ordinance change should leave intact the council’s involvement in reviewing neglected properties. That would ensure that property owners have a public forum to explain any circumstances that have resulted in their properties falling into disrepair, he said.
“Most of the time, it’s not a person being totally irresponsible. It’s people who have fallen onto hard times,’’ he said. “It’s elderly people on fixed incomes who have become sick. It’s a husband whose wife has died. There are a lot of sad stories that come forward and you’ve got to make an informed decision if this is something you want to come down hard on, or something to give a little leeway.’’
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.