County Toughens Nuisance Law

SNOW HILL – In an effort to more quickly address nuisance properties in Worcester County, officials agreed this week to cut the time homeowners have to address violations.

The Worcester County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to shorten the time property owners have to abate a nuisance from 30 days to 15 days.

“To me it’s just as much a crime if somebody went over and actually did damage to your property versus what they’re piling up next door,” Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw said. “It’s no difference the damage that’s being done.”

County staff spent the summer taking a close look at the county’s nuisance abatement laws at the request of the commissioners, who were concerned that the process wasn’t addressing concerns quickly enough. Ed Tudor, the county’s director of development review and permitting, said Tuesday that the county’s laws were sufficient but that staff struggled to keep up with the number and variety of issues encountered. Currently, staff only responds to properties about which complaints have been made.

“The ordinance is actually pretty good,” Tudor said. “The problem is in getting something done out there. You run into all different types of circumstances. It really gets messy.”

Sometimes, he said, it’s hard to determine who owns a nuisance property, as foreclosures mean banks from anywhere in the country could be in control. Other times, a problem like a junk-filled yard is addressed only to have the property owner recreate the mess. Hoarders, Tudor said, tended to be habitual offenders.

“They don’t’ view things in the same light we do,” he said.

If property owners fail to address an issue after county employees bring it to their attention, the county can eventually do the work itself. In those situations, however, it’s a struggle to recover the money spent.

“This is money we’re laying out and in most cases will probably not get back,” Tudor said.

He said it was also difficult to find county staff who could perform the work, as Worcester County Public Works had limited resources. In most cases contractors have to be hired.

Commissioner Bud Church said he thought the county’s number of nuisance properties would only increase as homes continued to go into foreclosure.

“Something needs to be done,” he said. “The problem seems to be getting worse.”

Lockfaw agreed. He said the county had been too liberal with the amount of time it gave residents in the past to address a problem.

“It’s decreasing the value of the next door neighbor’s property,” he said. “I think we have to be more aggressive.”

Tudor said if officials wanted to do that they’d have to be willing to pay for contractors to do things like cut tall grass and clean up debris. He said they’d also have to stick to the 15-day policy in spite of pleas from property owners.

“You have to have the resolve in those cases to stick with it,” he said.