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Springfield considers vacant property registry

Program may fight blight, some worry it can’t be enforced.

The city of Springfield is considering creating a registration and inspection program for vacant houses to deter crime, improve safety and decrease blight in neighborhoods.

But at least two city commissioners have concerns with the proposal, calling it intrusive and difficult to enforce.

The hundreds of vacant structures in Springfield — aggravated by the foreclosure crisis — are attractive targets for criminals, especially copper theft and arson, and a safety concern for police officers and firefighters, said Shannon Meadows, the city’s community development director.

“It’s a significant issue, one we’re dealing with constantly, and it’s making it much more difficult to turn properties back into effective use … On the surface, we think about the blighting influence, and that’s bad enough,” she said. “We also have had first responders injured when responding to situations within vacant properties.”

The proposed registration would require owners or lenders to register a vacant property, secure and maintain it and pay a $250 registration fee. The city would inspect a home when first listed and then again on a monthly basis.

About 1,035 cities nationwide and 52 cities in Ohio have enacted such registries.

The proposal would allow several exceptions for owners who are actively marketing their houses for rent, homeowners who leave the city during the winter months or properties with active building permits.

“We’ve tried to narrow down the scope of what a vacancy is,” city Law Director Jerry Strozdas said.

Commissioners discussed the proposed registry at their retreat last week and Mayor Warren Copeland said they will get more details before moving forward with any legislation.

Commissioner Karen Duncan sees a need for empty homes to be properly maintained.

“If you get a couple of (vacant properties) on one block, it really drags things down,” Duncan said. “If individuals are buying them in hopes of reselling them, they need to be able to keep the properties at some minimum standard.”

Commissioners Kevin O’Neill and Joyce Chilton both expressed concerns with the proposal. Chilton said the proposal was intrusive, while O’Neill said it would be difficult to enforce.

Clark County Board of Realtors President Lori Fulk said she’s on the fence about the proposal. She believes the vacant homes hurt the market in pockets of the city, but said a registration would be tough to enforce.

“It’s going to be tough to control,” Fulk said. “There are so many (banks) and they’re not always on the same page as the locals are.”

The recent foreclosure crisis has lead to an increase in empty homes throughout the city. Foreclosures make it difficult to find out who owns a property at any given time, Strozdas said, which could be the bank or the former owner, depending on where the house is in the process.

If a property is vandalized and an owner can’t be found, it’s more difficult to press charges, Meadows said. The registration might also allow for more response from owners who let their grass and weeds grow tall in the summer.

The proposed program would also prohibit boarding and stickers on windows of vacant homes. It would also require functioning sump pumps and winterizing.

The city currently has no system to know about vacancies unless neighbors call about suspicious activities. A registry could lead to quicker notification, Strozdas said.

“We just want to get them on the radar screen earlier,” he said.

The city of Fairborn adopted a vacant property registration in 2011.

It has registered about 140 vacant properties, said Jonathan Boeckman, Fairborn’s Community Development Block Grant program coordinator.

If there’s a problem with a property, the city now has up-to-date contact information. It has also decreased maintenance costs concerning vacant properties.

“We know who’s responsible, so we can send letters out immediately to the responsible party to have them take care of those,” Boeckman said.

The biggest problem, he said, is getting someone to be responsible for a property when a title is still transferring from the owner to the bank during a foreclosure.

Andy Irick, the senior vice president for retail banking at Security National Bank, said the possible registration wouldn’t be a big issue for Security. It owns only three properties in the city, he said, and does its best to keep them maintained.

“We try to be a good neighbor,” Irick said.

He believes a registration would be good for the community.

“It may be that it makes the owner, if it’s an out-of-town bank or property owner, it would make it easier to contact them, easier to find out who to contact if the property needs work or there’s an emergency,” Irick said. “I can see that being a good thing.”

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