The Vacant Property Registry

By Mike Barhorst - Contributing columnist

Many of you know that I have been serving on the board of the Shelby County Land Reutilization Corporation (Land Bank) since it was created. As part of the statute that permits the creation of a county land bank, a representative of the county’s largest municipality has a seat on that board, and I have been privileged to be the “designated batter”.

As a part of my duties, I have seen first-hand the dilapidated conditions of some of the vacant properties within both Sidney and Shelby County. These vacant properties blight neighborhoods, attract nuisances (both the two-legged and the four-legged varieties), and cost tax-payers money as city and county staffers deals with code enforcement violations and a myriad of other problems associated with vacant properties.

Perhaps the most notorious vacant properties in the city are the former Wagner Manufacturing complex and The Ohio Building. While the land bank will go a long way in removing the worst of the housing stock, the land bank currently has no funding to remove blighted properties that were used either for commercial or manufacturing endeavors.

For some time (years, not weeks or months) City Council has been wrestling with how we might address the issue of vacant properties. It is Council’s desire to prevent a property from getting to the point that the only alternative is to demolish the structure(s) on the property. In essence, preventative action that we would take would hopefully make the work of the Land Bank unnecessary.

City staff investigated how the vacant property issue was dealt with in other communities. We modeled the local program after the best-practices found in successful programs adopted in other municipalities.

The purpose of the program is to identify and register vacant residential, commercial and industrial buildings; to codify the responsibilities of the owners of vacant buildings and structures; and, to protect neighborhoods from becoming blighted through the lack of adequate maintenance of vacant and/or abandoned properties.

Under the program, owners of vacant properties must register the building if it meets any of the nine criteria laid out in the definition of “vacant building.” Those conditions include: 1.) unoccupied and unsecured; 2.) unoccupied and secured by other than normal means; 3.) unoccupied and an unsafe building as determined by the building or fire inspector; 4.) unoccupied and having utilities disconnected; 5.) unoccupied and having property maintenance or building code violations; 6.) illegally occupied, which shall include loitering and vagrancy; 7.) unoccupied and abandoned by the property owner; 8.) unoccupied and has one or more broken or boarded windows; or 9.) used for other than a permitted use of zoning district in which it is located, unless owner provides documentation of legal non-conforming use. One of the changes we have made since the program was first discussed is that properties that are seasonally vacant, such as the residential homes of “snow birds,” are exempt from registration, unless there is a property maintenance issue.

The registration would be valid for one year. The registration would need to be renewed annually so long as the building is vacant.

In the case where the property owner is not local, they must appoint an owner-agent that resides within 50 miles of Sidney as a local point of contact. This local point of contact is crucial to the quick remedy of complaints and/or code violations.

As a part of the program, every vacant property will have both the interior and exterior of the property inspected as a part of the initial registration period. After that initial registration, residential properties will have their interiors inspected once every three years, while commercial/industrial property interiors will continue to be inspected annually. Exterior inspections for all vacant properties will occur twice per year.

The program does contain an incentive to vacant property owners to return the property to a constructive use. This is accomplished by the property owner creating and following a “development plan” with a timeline for anticipated re-occupancy of the property.

The city will refund the full amount of all registration fees paid in the time period after approval of the “development plan” (less any funds used by the city to maintain the safety and security of the subject building) if the subject building was brought into compliance with standards of federal, state, and local codes and reoccupied within the time frame specified in the approved “development plan”.

If no Development Plan is on file, the vacant properties would be subject to fees which escalate every year, up to the fifth year where the maximum fee level would be met. Fees range from $200 – $3,200 for residential properties and $400 – $6,400 for commercial/industrial properties.

Readers are probably thinking, “Great! This will enable the city do something about the Wagner Manufacturing building.” Sadly, that facility has been vacant so long and has accumulated such significant liens against the property that the vacancy fees from this program will likely be but a small portion of the past due amounts and will have little to no motivating effect on the property owner to return it to a productive use. What this program is intended to do is to prevent this type of deterioration from occurring at other properties in the community.

“And what about the Ohio Building and the old county jail?” is likely the next question. The vacant property program contains exemptions for various types of buildings. Those exemptions include buildings damaged by fire, extreme weather, those in bankruptcy, probate or other court or administrative action, government owned property, property owned by the Shelby County Land Bank, property for sale or lease and listed with a real estate agent as well as buildings under active construction/renovation and having a valid building permit. Readers should know that despite the exemptions for government buildings, city and county leaders are actively exploring varied options to return both the former jail and The Ohio Building to the tax rolls as vital parts of the downtown.

This is obviously not a new problem. A note in a local newspaper on May 10, 1895, read as follows: If you want your town to improve, improve it. If you want to make the town lively, make it so. Don’t go to sleep but get up and work for it, talk about it and talk favorably. If you have property, improve it, paint your house, clean up your alleys and backyards. Public improvement is an investment that pays.

The legislation adopted by council is yet another step in the right direction to continue toward improved quality of life for our residents. While this change will be easy for some and more difficult for others, when each of us takes small steps to help in creating a lasting positive community impression, we can help make a tremendous difference in the long term economic vitality of the city of Sidney

By Mike Barhorst

Contributing columnist

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.