MECHANICSBURG – Following the passage of an ordinance establishing the Historic Main Street Zoning Overlay District on Jan. 2, Mechanicsburg Village Council continues its march toward preserving not only the village’s history, but also its future through the pending passage of a “demolition by neglect” ordinance.
The measure, which underwent a first reading during Monday’s council meeting, aims to provide an incentive for owners of vacant structures (commercial and residential) throughout the village to get their properties back into productive use before they fall into a state of disrepair.
“We are losing tax revenue because the deprecation on the these (vacant) buildings is rapid,” Zoning Officer Dusty Hurst said. “This (ordinance) is more on the grounds to say the buildings that are a huge problem, let’s take care of these to hopefully get some quality things back into our downtown before we become Milford Center or Woodstock.”
Hurst added the idea for this particular piece of legislation was presented to the Mechanicsburg Planning Commission by a representative from the Ohio History Connection (OHC) as a way to give the village some “teeth” when it comes to holding property owners responsible for structures left to rot.
“The majority of our zoning violations are empty structures, but I can’t go after an empty structure,” he said.
The ordinance, however, would give Hurst a tool that many municipalities throughout the state have adopted to combat vacant structures.
“Two years ago it (“demolition by neglect” ordinance) was in 90 municipalities,” he said. “I don’t know the number now, but they (OHC) presented this.”
In November 2016, council passed a resolution in support of the “demolition by neglect” ordinance, sending the measure to the Mechanicsburg Planning Commission, which sent it back to council with a recommendation for approval. If passed, the ordinance would establish the Vacant Building Maintenance Enforcement Program (Section 592), a supplement of the Mechanicsburg Village Zoning Ordinance.
Under the proposed measure, a vacant building would be defined as a structure that meets one of the following criteria: Unoccupied and unsecured; unoccupied and secured by other than normal means; unoccupied and an unsafe building as determined by the zoning inspector or his duly designated representative; unoccupied and having utilities disconnected; unoccupied and having housing or building code violations; illegally occupied; unoccupied over 90 days and having an existing code violation; unoccupied with a mortgage status of abandonment; or unoccupied and abandoned by the property owner.
Registration, fee details
If the ordinance is passed following three readings, an owner of a property deemed to be vacant would be required to register the structure (forms available at the municipal building) with the village administrator no later than 90 days after it becomes vacant or no later than 30 days after being notified by the zoning inspector (or a duly designated representative) of the requirement to register based on evidence of vacancy.
At the time of registration, the owner would be required to submit a vacant building plan, detailing one of the following: A demolition plan if the building is to be demolished; a plan for ensuring the building is secured if the structure is to remain vacant; or a rehabilitation plan for the property if the building is to be returned to use or occupancy.
To entice property owners to keep their structures occupied, the measure calls for the owner to pay a $200 fee for the first year the building remains vacant, and for every consecutive year the building remains vacant, an annual fee will be assessed at double the previous year’s fee. The maximum annual fee would be capped at $3,200.
Anyone found to be in violation would be guilty of a fourth-degree misdemeanor upon first offense, a third-degree misdemeanor upon a second offense, and a second-degree misdemeanor upon a third offense.
Recouping fees, exemptions
Council member Charles Foss, who owns rental properties in the village, stated his concern over making rental property owners pay a $200 fee if they are maintaining their properties but simply unable to rent them within a given time frame.
“I just don’t agree with it,” he said. “If someone is letting it fall down, that’s a different story. I guess I’m just questioning why the village is involved at all.”
Hurst responded to Foss’ concern by stating in a worst case scenario, an owner of a rental property that’s considered to be vacant would have to register and pay the $200 fee, but if the property is rented within a year, the owner would be refunded 95 percent of the fee, with the other 5 percent going toward administrative costs.
“Essentially, if it is a rental or whatever it might be and you take the necessary steps within that first year to bring it into compliance or have it rented out, you end up paying $10 (administrative fee),” Hurst added. “If you don’t plan on investing money into a property you are buying, then don’t buy it so somebody else can.”
The Vacant Building Maintenance Enforcement Program outlines several exemptions that would allow owners of vacant buildings to forgo registering their properties. Exemptions include:
•A building under active construction, reconstruction or renovation and having a valid building permit at the time of initial inspection.
•A building that has sustained fire damage or damage caused by extreme weather conditions is exempt from the registration requirement for a period of 90 days after the date of the fire or extreme weather event.
•A building that is for sale and listed with a licensed state Realtor is exempt for 12 months from the start of vacancy.
•A building may be granted an exemption based on other circumstances provided the owner submits a request for exemption with the zoning inspector or his/her designated representative.
The earliest the proposed ordinance would have a third and final reading would be Feb. 20.