High Grass, Abandoned Houses Spark Debate

BERLIN – A discussion
this week during the Berlin Mayor and Council meeting about the growing number
of complaints about high grass at vacant or foreclosed houses in the town
eventually came around to a debate about the town’s policy regarding residences
boarded up for an extended period of time.

The continued sagging
economy and the associated foreclosure crisis in towns like Berlin and all over
the country have led to more vacant, unkempt properties throughout town limits.
As a result, town officials have been wrestling with how to handle problem
properties, or more specifically, when the town has a right to go onto private
property and handle the nuisances themselves.

Planning and Zoning
Commissioner Chuck Ward told the Mayor and Council on Monday the problem has
worsened in recent months as the number of vacant properties continues to
increase with the warm weather, compounding high grass and overgrown bushes and
shrubbery issues. Ward said the town has a policy whereby property owners are
first tried to reach by phone and later by a formal letter about the condition
of the properties.

As a measure of last
resort, the town can and often does go onto private property and cut grass and
remove debris, if the owners can’t be reached and the properties become a

“We have to legally
exhaust every effort to contact them before we go on their property,” he said.
“It’s been very difficult at times.”

Mayor Gee Williams on
Monday told Ward to be particularly mindful of properties at the various
entryways to the town such as Main, Broad, Bay and Flower streets, for example.

“If properties fall into
disrepair, especially along some of these streets, we need to get on them
quickly,” he said. “These are important entryways.”

Ward said many of the
problem properties are vacant or are in various stages of the foreclosure
process. Some are listed for sale, which often makes getting them corrected
easier and quicker.

“Usually, realtors are
very responsive because they are selling the house and it’s in their best
interest to keep it looking good,” he said. “If there is a ‘for sale’ sign,
that’s usually a good thing.”

The debate about
overgrown grass and unkempt properties eventually came around to a renewed
debate about the number of boarded-up houses in Berlin. Councilwoman Paula
Lynch has broached the subject in the past and vowed to keep bringing it up
until her concerns were satisfied. Ward said he was willing to author
adjustments to the code at the direction of the Mayor and Council.

“If I could get some
guidance about adjusting the code to address this, I’d be glad to do it,” he
said. “Boarded-up houses can’t be boarded up forever.”

Town Administrator Tony
Carson urged Lynch and her colleagues to instruct Ward on their major concerns
with boarded-up houses, touching off a humorous exchange.

“Can you give Chuck some
direction about a timeframe for how long they should have to fix them up?” said

“How about tomorrow?,”
said Lynch. “Forever isn’t working.”

Town Attorney Dave
Gaskill interceded, pointing out how other municipalities handle similar

“A typical remedy for a
municipality is demolition, but it can’t be just because it is unsightly,” he
said. “It has to be deemed unsafe.”

Carson suggested maybe
no time frame was too short for a policy on boarded-up residences.

“Maybe boarding up
shouldn’t even be an option,” he said. “If it’s acceptable for a year, but not
a year and a day, why have it be an option at all.”