There was much talk about a lack of perfection as Norwalk Common Council members unanimously voted to approve Norwalk's first residential blight ordinance Tuesday evening.
"Is it perfect? No," Geake said. "Fairly early on in the process we made the decision that we would start with an ordinance that would address, as Councilman (David) McCarthy termed it, the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the buildings that were truly heinous, that no one would dispute them needing to be addressed. ... The purpose of this ordinance is to get the worst of the worst dealt with."
Blight is defined as a condition that poses a serious or immediate danger, a lack of adequate maintenance and property that has been cited for two or more code violations that have not been corrected and are not in the process of appeal. The ordinance specifically mentions missing or boarded windows, rotting or missing portions of walls, roof or floors; missing siding; fire damage; garbage piling up and abandoned cars.
Written warnings that are not heeded within the time period specified will be followed by a citation, which carries a $100 a day fine. Unpaid fines will constitute a lien on the property. The city can also cure the blight itself if nothing is done within 30 days. Those costs will also constitute a lien.
The blight ordinance was accompanied by a landlord registration ordinance, which also passed. It requires absentee landlords to register their mailing addresses with the city's Department of Health. Mention also was made of crafting a blight ordinance for commercial properties.
The landlord ordinance fine is $250 for the first violation and $1,000 for any subsequent violation.
The Norwalk Health Department already has an ordinance requiring owners of homes with three or more families to register, Health Department Director Tim Callahan said. The new ordinance is aimed at people who own homes with two or fewer families.
Sometimes when there is a violation, the health department cannot find the owner of the building in question, Callahan said. "It's amazing," he said. "A lot of the time tenants don't know the name of their landlord."
If a notice is sent to the building, the landlord may not get it, he said.
"The violations don't get corrected," he said. "Things just sit."
Common Councilman Fred Bondi (R-At large) abstained on the vote. Councilwoman Anna Duleep (D-At Large) recused herself from the vote on the advice of Corporation Counsel Robert Maslan, as a property owned by her mother could be considered blighted. Everyone else present voted for it. Council members Michelle Maggio (R-District C) and McCarthy (R-District E) were absent.
The Democratic caucus asked for two amendments to the blight ordinance, after conferring with Assistant Corporation Counsel Brian McCann during a recess. Minority Leader David Watts requested that words be added to specify that violators be given information and possible assistance.
"We want to send a message that we are not out there to punish people, we are there to help people," he said.
He also questioned the language regarding a hearing officer. While the mayor would appoint such an officer in the original wording of the ordinance, Watts requested that such an appointment would be approved by the council, and would, perhaps, be a lawyer.
Mayor Richard Moccia was not pleased with the proposal.
"It would be helpful if this had been presented at the Ordinance Committee prior to tonight," he said.
McCann said the language would not only be benevolent, but would also serve a purpose, as city attorneys could say in court that a violator had been given every opportunity.
Watts dropped the desire for council approval, but McCann added that a hearing officer would be a standing member of the Connecticut Bar Association. The amendment passed.
The ordinances becomes effective Jan. 1.
Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said the landlord ordinance isn't perfect.
"You know, our Constitution was created so you can create amendments," he said. "I think what we needed to do was get something on here and then go back and let's revise it and tweak it, because if we wait around for the perfect document this, too, may pass."
Similar comments were made about the blight ordinance.
"I think this is a good start," Councilman Matt Miklave, an attorney, said. "I think there are numerous problems with it. I hope the Ordinance Committee goes back to this ordinance and tries to tighten it up. I do think there will be legal challenges to it. I have some grave reservations about some of the language that is used, but it is a good first start."
One speaker at the meeting, Diane Cece, said she was disappointed that Stamford's blight ordinance had not been used as a model. Geake and Kimmel said that would have been very expensive to implement.
"We wanted to go from having nothing," Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-District D) said. "We wanted to take a first step. It's been very, very difficult to get a blight ordinance for many years, for a number of reasons. So this is focused. It deals with very clear, visible problems and we are pretty sure it will work."
Bondi and Miklave urged the Ordinance Committee to get to work on an ordinance for commercial properties.
"That's a big problem," Bondi said. "I think the Ordinance Committee should work on that next and do that diligently. ... I think there's a lot of commercial properties in this city that need to be looked at and taken care of."