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City tightens boarded up house rules

SALISBURY — Days are numbered for boarded up houses in the city of Salisbury.
City Council on Tuesday approved new rules that give property owners who board up their vacant houses six months — longer in some cases — to either fix them up or tear them down.
“The important part is we are saying, the boarded up house is a temporary condition and not a permanent condition,” Councilman Brian Miller said. “It is not meant to stay that way. It’s temporary.”
Owners of properties that are already boarded up have 90 days to register with the city. Then their six-month clock starts to tick.
Numerous houses in Salisbury have been boarded up for years, providing a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, officials said. Neighborhood advocates and the city’s new Housing Advocacy Commission pushed for the regulations.
Council members made two concessions, lowering fines in the original draft and extending the six-month deadline in some circumstances.
Owners who violate the new rules will have 15 days to make corrections. Those who don’t will be fined $250 — down from $500 — the first day and $25 a day — down from $50 — after that. Council capped the fines at $5,000.
In response to comments from the public, Chris Branham, the city’s Code Services Division manager, offered five scenarios where he would extend the six-month deadline and allow a house to remain boarded up:
• Owner signs an intent-to-repair letter
• Owner is working on the property and making visible progress
• Owner has pulled permits for repair work
• House meets all other city codes
• Owner has filed a claim with an insurance company to pay for repairs after a fire or other damage
Anyone who boards up a house must register with the city within 48 hours. Owners who meet the extension criteria could qualify for up to two renewals, or a total of 18 months before the boards must come off.
Owners of boarded up houses have to provide the city with their contact information, which Branham said is invaluable. In 2011, the city had 113 boarded up houses. More than half the owners live in Salisbury.
“If we start a verbal conversation with the owner, that usually results in improvement to the property, not demolition,” he said.
Branham said he hopes more property owners will take action, fixing up their homes and adding to the city’s available housing stock.
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said some people have the misconception that the new rules will harm the poor. In fact, the regulations will improve the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods, where residents have had to live next door to boarded up houses for years, she said.
In most cases, the owners of these properties pay the property taxes and live in homes that far exceed the value of their boarded up houses, Blackwell said.
She also said the requirement to paint the plywood over windows black and over door openings white will make the properties innocuous to visitors driving by.
Specific instructions for how to board up a house, from the type of wood used to the size and placement of screws, will make it harder for someone to break into the properties, Blackwell said.
The council voted unanimously to approve the rules, although Councilwoman Karen Alexander expressed concern the rules could mean demolition of historic properties.
Councilman Pete Kennedy said he was surprised to realize that most of the boarded up homes in Salisbury are owned by people who live in the city and Rowan County.
“It’s time to do something with this,” he said.
The fines are civil citations and will be collected by suing property owners in small claims court, not by putting a lien on the property.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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