Hearings Set On ‘Problem Houses’ Code Changes
By: Tom Moran Jr.
Next Thursday evening, the Barnstable Town Council is set to open public hearings on five town code amendments intended to address chronic problem properties and blight in the neighborhoods of the town.
“We want to improve the life of Barnstable residents,” said Laura T. Cronin of Hyannis, who played a key role in the initiative to bring the amendments before the council.
The amendments are intended to address chronic problem properties subject to repeated police calls; building maintenance; overcrowding; trash storage; and noise violations.
“They came from the initial question, ‘How can we make Hyannis better?’” said Ms. Cronin, a member of the Greater Hyannis Civic Association.
In April 2011, 300 people came to the Hyannis West Elementary School to answer that question.Hyannis residents were frustrated over news of crime, excessive noise, and dumping connected with rental properties in certain neighborhoods of the village.
That meeting in 2011 led to the formation of the Voices of the Village initiative to address the problems in Hyannis, the creation of community task forces to study and take on those problems, and ultimately the proposed code amendments.
The amendments are slated to come before the council at its meeting next Thursday night.
The meeting is set to start at 7 PM in the town hall hearing room.
Town councilors Jennifer L. Cullum of Hyannis, James H. Cote of Osterville and Jessica Rapp Grassetti of Cotuit are co-sponsoring the amendments.
The amendments would create new chapters in the town code to address chronic problem properties and building maintenance, and modify three chapters in the code that address the number of occupants allowed in a residence, the storage of rubbish, and noise violations.
A number of town residents, however, have questioned whether the amendments go too far on infringing on property rights.
Of the proposed changes, a new town code chapter on “problem properties” would allow the town, at the discretion of the police chief, to bill the owner of a property for police costs after the police respond to three felonies or misdemeanors at that property within a 12-month period.
Once an address is identified by the chief under the chapter as a “chronic problem property,” the town collector will be empowered to bill the property owner for police costs and deposit the money in the general fund of the town.
Unpaid bills will be added to the real estate tax.
Failure to pay real estate taxes will render the property owner delinquent and the collector will move to foreclose on the property.
Ms. Cronin said the amendment, modeled on an ordinance in the City of Boston, is designed to target properties that are the subject of chronic, repeated criminal calls.
At present, she said, “There is no incentive to the landlord [of a rental property] to vet the tenants.”
Ms. Cullum said the repeated calls to particular properties take up town services and cost the town money.
The chapter on building maintenance is designed to prevent property deterioration and avoid any related hazards to public health and safety.
Ms. Cronin said the chapter, which is based on ordinances in 41 other cities and towns in Massachusetts, is intended to uphold minimal property maintenance standards.
Under the chapter, the town can order the property owner to address violations.
After three or more violations in a 12-month period, the town can bill the property owner for responses to each subsequent violation.
Ms. Cronin said the chapter is designed to target abandoned properties and eyesores.
“We’re going for extreme cases, not children’s bikes on the lawn,” Ms. Cronin said. “We’re trying to bring back the quality of life in the neighborhood.”
“In some cases, it’s really just complete neglect,” Mr. Cote said of a number of properties in town.
Again, at present, Ms. Cronin said there is no incentive for an owner to maintain a property.
She said the town now can move against a property only if a health violation has occurred.
She said the chapter is not intended to target working people who have fallen behind on maintenance in the difficult economy, or elderly residents who have trouble keeping up with maintenance.
The third amendment addresses the issue of overcrowding.
The existing town code defines the legal age of an occupant as 22.
“By law, however, an 18-year-old may enter into a lease agreement,” states a summary accompanying the proposed amendment.
“This discrepancy allows the potential for an overcrowding situation in residences.”
The amendment cuts the legal age to 18, exempting children, grandchildren and foster children.
The amendment also strikes language in the town code that allows a maximum of overnight parking of two motor vehicles for the first bedroom in a dwelling and one motor vehicle per bedroom thereafter.
The fourth amendment increases the maximum fine for two documented occasions of improper storage of rubbish at a rental property over a 12-month period from $100 to $300.
The fifth amendment makes the property owner responsible for noise violations at the property.
After three violations in a 12-month period, the town may bill the owner for the costs incurred for each subsequent violation.
Ms. Cronin said the proposals originated in concerns and ideas brought forward at Voices of the Village task force meetings.
A number of individuals including Ms. Cronin proceeded to work on the proposals with rental property managers and town officials including Thomas F. Geiler, director of regulatory services, Thomas A. McKean, director of public health, zoning enforcement officer Robin Anderson, and Barnstable Police Chief Paul B. MacDonald and Deputy Police Chief Craig Tamash.
Town Attorney Ruth J. Weil and Assistant Town Attorney T. David Houghton also assisted in drafting the amendments.
Councilors backing the proposed changes anticipate concerns will be raised about the amendments.
“Yes, there will be some blowback,” Mr. Cote said.
Former town councilor Henry C. Farnham of West Barnstable has blasted the proposed property maintenance chapter, which he said “has no business in Barnstable or America.”
The chapter, Mr. Farnham stated, dictates that the town will go after any property owner who has real estate that does not comply with the lengthy list of items in the ordinance.
Some proponents of the amendment, Mr. Farnham stated in an e-mail, have suggested “that the ordinance is geared toward certain properties that are a mess (and they are.) In other words, they will support selective enforcement of the ordinances and the rest of us don’t have to worry."
“That is bunk,” he stated. “We all know that once an ordinance is on the books it should be enforced universally. I suspect that a significant number of properties in town will have immediate violations should [the amendment] be approved,” Mr. Farnham stated.
“It would be revealing if some interested citizens drove around to each of the councilors’ homes and businesses to see if there are violations on site and recorded them, he stated. “And while they’re at it, they might check out all the property owned by the town’s administration and regulatory service department.
Mr. Farnham called the amendment “a very misguided attempt at fixing a problem that affects a small percentage of the private property in town.”
He said he believes the town may have other remedies, such as existing town public health regulations.
Councilor Cullum herself expressed concern about the discretion allotted to the town police chief under the problem property amendment.
“We love our police chief now, but who’s to come after him?” she asked.
The councilor said she is hoping for a lively council debate on the proposals.“We’ll shoot holes in them to make sure they’re fair for every citizen,” Ms. Cullum said. “We’ll see how the sticks fall.”
Ms. Cronin acknowledges controversy in the town about the proposals, but also said the backers do not consider the proposals to be written in stone.
She said the backers also understand that the council may defeat one or more of the proposals, which is one reason they were submitted individually rather than as a single proposal.
Although the impetus for the changes came from Hyannis, Ms. Cronin said meetings with civic associations across the town have revealed that the identified problems also can be found in other villages in the town.
“They do not have as many, but they do have some,” she said.
More information on the proposed code amendments is available by visiting the Greater Hyannis Civic Association website at www.hyanniscivic.com, or sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Backers of the amendments also are ready to meet with groups to discuss the amendments.
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