Council Working On Policy For Trouble Properties

SALISBURY — The Salisbury City Council was presented with multiple options for dealing with its vacant and unsellable properties at a work-session Monday.

While each option could have been implemented as a stand-alone policy, the council chose to move ahead with all four options simultaneously, depending on the circumstances of the case.

City Attorney Paul Wilber, along with Director of Internal Services Pan Oland, briefed the council on the possible options.

As it stands, there were four possibilities for dealing with stubborn properties: the council could take no action, buy them directly, pursue the owners in court or look towards setting up a Vacant Structure Receivership program.

While each option had pros and cons, the council was wary of committing to just one path.

“I don’t think we want to lock the council in on any one of these,” remarked Council President Louise Smith.

Instead, the council discussed how all options could be used most effectively together to deal with the abundance of troubled properties in the city. Oland presented a list of those properties to the council. The nearly 20 properties cited have already cost more than $227,000, the bulk of that impacting the city, mainly in the form of demolition fees.

Some of the properties had owners that have died without leaving an inheritor, placing the lot in limbo. However, there were a number of other properties that have been placed under liens that the city is having difficulty collecting, a situation that caused some on the council to display frustration.

“This is categorically unacceptable,” said Councilwoman Deborah Campbell. “It’s shameful.”

Campbell informed the council that a few of the properties on the list were owned by businesses trying to “take advantage” of the city.

“They need to pay up,” she concluded.

This would require the council to follow the third option, pursuing the owners in court. Unfortunately, in many of the cases, the cost of the liens against the property that the city would recover fall short of what the court costs would be.

However, this still leaves other options. The council could buy a property at the minimum price and then attempt to get it back out on the market.

“We would hold up our hand as a bidder,” said Oland.

Vice President Gary Comegys questioned the effectiveness of that approach, wondering how much money the city would be able to save compared to simply leaving the property on the sales list.

“As soon as we own it, we have to maintain it,” he remarked.

The final option would be to implement a Vacant Structure Receivership program. Mayor Jim spoke up in favor of this, comparing it to Baltimore’s “Vacancy to Value” project.

The program would allow a “receiver” to be granted a troublesome property. The “receiver” would then be tasked with rehabilitating the location.

“The trick would be to find someone in the area,” said Wilber.

What qualifies a receiver was not defined at the meeting; the possibility of partnering with Habitat for Humanity was mentioned, though not confirmed. Comegys pointed out the benefit of having the receivers be court-appointed.

“It takes the politics out of it,” he said.

By the end of discussion, the council had decided to request legislature be drafted that could turn into the basis of a receivership program as well as giving Oland the okay to start looking at what properties the city might wish to buy. They did, however, decide to start looking at how all four options might be set into policy, since judging properties case-by-case held some potential to be abused.

“The council did the right thing moving Vacant Property-Parcel Receivership forward,” said Ireton.

The mayor explained that Salisbury is attempting to advance in its campaign to become a better city, and that a large part of that would mean addressing abandoned properties that scarred the landscape.

“Boarded up or vacant properties or lots,” he remarked, “have been difficult to address because of a dead end with last known owners of LLC’s that can’t be held responsible because we don’t know who they are.”

Ireton went on to say that, by beginning to officially look at ways to manage these properties either by placing them into a receivership program or buying them directly, Salisbury has already taken steps towards combating signs of desolation.

“Like Mr. Wilber said,” added Ireton, “this is another tool in the city toolbox to address blight.”

Ireton expressed the hope that a future receivership program might put abandoned properties “in the hands of organizations that will get them back on the tax rolls.”