Neighborhood advocates push for rules on boarded up houses

  • Posted: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 12:17 a.m.
    UPDATED: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 1:01 a.m.
City staff plan to ask City Council in May to approve demolishing this house on Mitchell Avenue, which has been boarded up since a fire in May 2012. Proposed new regulations would cut the time to six months. Photo by Emily Ford
City staff plan to ask City Council in May to approve demolishing this house on Mitchell Avenue, which has been boarded up since a fire in May 2012. Proposed new regulations would cut the time to six months. Photo by Emily Ford

SALISBURY — In 2005, neighborhood leaders in Salisbury named vacant, boarded up houses as their greatest concern.

“Here we are 10 years later, still trying to get something done about boarded up housing,” said Barbara Perry, a neighborhood advocate.

Perry and others want City Council to pass new regulations that spell out not only how a property owner should board up a house — from the plywood to the size of the screws — but more importantly, advocates say, how long a house can remain boarded up before the owner fixes or demolishes it.

Garth Birdsey said there are houses in the Park Avenue neighborhood that have been boarded up for 30 years.

“This ordinance would be good because it forces the owner to do something with those houses to make them less of a blight on the neighborhood,” Birdsey told City Council last week.

The proposed ordinance does not require owners of vacant homes to board them up. Property owners can replace the glass in broken windows and secure doors, like Birdsey said he did with his vacant property.

But if owners choose to board up a house, they would have 48 hours to register those properties with the Code Services Division. The owners will then have six months to bring the houses up to code or plan for demolition.

Owners who violate the new regulations would have 15 days after being notified by the city to make corrections. If the violations are not corrected, the owner will be fined $500 for the first day of being out of compliance and $50 a day after that until the violations are corrected.

Rodney Queen said boarded up houses provide a haven for gangs and drug dealers and cause property values to fall for neighbors.

“We need to shift the burden to the people who have boarded up houses and live somewhere else in a nicer neighborhood,” Queen told City Council. “… We need to protect the taxpaying citizens living beside all this mess.”

The regulations are not intended to encourage the demolition of homes, although some properties are “too far gone” and will have to be torn down, he said.

Perry, who lives in an historic district, said it’s ironic that she needs permission to change the color of her house or install a handrail, but if she lived next door to a boarded up house, she would have no recourse under current city code.

Forms to register a boarded up house will be available online. Other cities with similar ordinances include Charlotte, Weldon, Durham, Fayetteville and Greensboro.

In 2011, the city had 113 boarded up properties, said Chris Branham, Code Services Division manager. Sixty-seven owners live in Salisbury, 10 live in Rowan County, 19 in other counties in North Carolina and 17 in other states.

While boarded up houses are spread throughout the city, there are concentrations in several neighborhoods, Branham said. Boarded up homes appear more frequently in areas of the city with higher rates of nuisance code violations, including junked cars and overgrown grass, he said.

Boarding up a house with 10 openings — doors and windows — would cost about $300, Branham said.

William Peoples encouraged City Council to pass the new rules and said poor neighborhoods are riddled with boarded up houses.

“If the city of Salisbury is going to be the crown jewel that we want it to be, we need to do something about it,” Peoples said.

The regulations would “get some people off their rear end” and force them to take care of neglected properties, he said.

Nathan Chambers said boarded houses in a neighborhood, like aggressive dogs and burned out houses, make it harder for landlords to attract quality tenants.

Brian Davis, executive director for Historic Salisbury Foundation, said he was concerned the regulation could deter people from buying historic homes with plans to renovate them down the road.

Davis urged City Council to allow an extension to the six-month deadline if property owners can prove the house is safe and secure and they have a timeline for repairs and renovations.

“Being a vacant structure is not a crime,” Davis said, pointing out that City Hall, the Salisbury Depot and many of the city’s historic homes were vacant at one time.

“We may lose some important structures if you do draw that line in the sand,” Davis said.

Clyde, an artist who uses only one name, spoke against the proposed ordinance.

Donning a Mickey Mouse hat, he told City Council, “Welcome to Disneyland.”

Clyde complained about the specific instructions for boarding up a house, which include painting the plywood white over door openings and black over window openings, with a white crosshair painted in the middle to resemble a four-pane window.

The city should require property owners to replace broken windows with glass, not instruct them on how to board up a house, Clyde said.

“We don’t want plywood, so why have an ordinance to tell you have to make the plywood cute?” he said.

Clyde, who said he replaces broken windows in his properties again and again, offered to cut window glass free of charge for anyone in the city.

He said the city is overstepping its constitutional bounds with the proposed ordinance.

“This is not Disneyland, this is Salisbury,” he said.

Council members liked the ordinance but tabled the issue until April 2 because two members were absent last week.

Mayor Paul Woodson said while he supports the concept, he thought the fines were too high. He did not pursue his concern after council members Brian Miller and Karen Alexander said they thought the fines were appropriate.

Branham clarified the regulation, saying the intent is not to encourage boarding up property but to force owners to plan for the repair of their vacant properties before they languish in neighborhoods for years.

For a decade, Perry said she has delivered Meals on Wheels to a house that stands next to a boarded up home, which continues to deteriorate.

“Why am I not the victim when I have to live next door to a boarded up house,” Perry said the woman asked, “and they are considered the victim because they might have to pay a fine?”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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