City considers tax on vacant buildings

By Jessica Weston

News Review Correspondent

A proposed ordinance targeting vacant, distressed and boarded buildings in the hope of reducing blight was sent back for a rewrite after a stream of sometimes angry citizens spoke up against it at the Ridgecrest City Council meeting Wednesday.

An ad hoc committee, ultimately formed to rework the ordinance, will meet for the first time April 3 at 6 p.m. The public is invited to attend.

The proposed ordinance amending Municipal Code Section 9-8 would require property owners to register vacant buildings with the city and pay registration and monitoring fees under certain circumstances.

The ordinance would include a fee waiver process for owners with required building permits who are either “working diligently to prepare the premises for occupancy” or actively offering the property for sale, lease or rent, assuming the building “meets all applicable codes,” according to the proposed ordinance.

In an interview earlier in the week, Mayor Dan Clark emphasized that the ordinance was intended to target absentee landlords and had been drafted with input from local realtors.

After Capt. Paul Wheeler of the Ridgecrest Police Department introduced the ordinance and gave it its first reading, several members of the public spoke up.

“We have a lot of unemployed in this community. We also have a lot of homeless … Some people may have to pay the fee or go without food. Those are the people I’m concerned about in this situation. Make sure you have some leeway there,” said Dave Matthews.

Stan Rajtora took exception to the section reading “those who choose to leave their buildings vacant.

“I have been a rental property owner for 30 years. I have never ‘chosen’ to leave a rental property vacant,” he said. Councilman Steven Morgan had questioned the same sentence earlier.

“There are three solutions, it’s jobs, jobs, and more jobs,” Rajtora said.

Carol Vaughn of Vaughn Realty said her No. 1 priority is the paperwork. “Who is going to do this paperwork?” she asked, objecting to the time for even compliant owners to apply for waivers.

Ronald Porter objected to what he called “the really scary part,” where the ordinance states that each day a violation exists a separate crime will occur. “Write a ticket every day, you might as well say, ‘I want your house,’” he said.

Vice Mayor Chip Holloway repeatedly pointed out that the various property owners speaking would qualify for waivers.

“The way I read this ordinance none of the people [here] should have concerns,” said Holloway during council discussion. “We’re not trying to go after people who invest in this community.

“We’ve got to do something. Not doing anything is not an option for me.”

“We need to work on this a lot more,” Morgan agreed.

“I like the concept,” said Councilman Jim Sanders. He also said the proposed ordinance should be tied to nuisance abatement.

Morgan and Councilwoman Lori Acton volunteered to be on the ad hoc committee to take another look at the ordinance.

“The ad hoc committee will take the ordinance and go through it word by word, line by line and try to address concerns,” said City Manager Dennis Speer in a later interview.

“They will try to bring people with concerns back to have them review and get input on the revised ordinance before it goes back to council.”

The ordinance may come back as a discussion item before it has another “first reading.”

Story First Published: 2014-03-26