Saying it would be best if a volunteer group of residents oversaw the sensitive and nuanced process of handling a blight complaint, New Canaan’s chief building official on Monday night proposed the creation of a new municipal committee.
Brian Platz said that in his position, he must be absolutely consistent in how he handles complaints about blighted properties in New Canaan, but such rigidity does not allow him to address on case-by-case basis situations where, for example, a resident has fallen on hard times.
For that reason and others, Platz said, a Blight Committee such as other towns have created is a better vehicle for fielding the complaints.
“I think that if [town residents] were to be, for want of better word—‘judged’—on the condition of their property, it may be better received by a jury of their peers rather than a building inspector who is an enforcement agent of the town,” Platz told members of the Town Council’s Bylaws and Ordinances Committee during a meeting held at Town Hall.
“Once I knock on their door and introduce myself, they already, understandably, get a little defensive. And I have had situations where I knocked on a woman’s door and she had gone on chemotherapy. She could barely answer the door and was fighting cancer, and she was well into her 70s, lived alone. And yes, her property absolutely was overgrown.”
Councilmen were highly receptive to the idea of a Blight Committee.
Steve Karl, the subcommittee’s co-chair, said situations such as the one Platz described is “the perfect opportunity for that.”
“Because to coordinate with some of our great nonprofits to take on projects like you mentioned where there could be a death in the family, there could be sickness, there could be age, there could be a million reasons why a home in New Canaan has fallen by the wayside,” Karl said.
In other types of cases, where there was “willful noncompliance” on the part of a property owner, Karl said, the matter could move from the committee to Platz for enforcement.
Platz said he gets about 12 to 14 blight complaints per year, typically in the fall, when residents suddenly have a better view of their neighbor’s property, and in the spring, where “everything grows again and it’s not pruned to their liking.”
The suggestion of a Blight Committee emerged during a wider discussion about New Canaan’s ordinance.
New Canaan’s blight ordinance is outlined in Chapter 119 of the Town Code.
Blight itself is defined as “Any condition or combination of conditions in public view upon any residential premises that tends to devalue real estate, or that is a negative influence upon the neighborhood or upon any neighbor’s use and enjoyment of his or her own property, due to, characterized by, or reflective of neglect, decay, deterioration, disrepair, rotting, overgrowth, infestation, dilapidation, or failure to maintain.”
The ordinance, as it is, outlines the responsibilities of property owners and tenants, including rather specific “standards to determine neglect”—one part of it notes that “No person shall allow debris or refuse piles larger than 10 square feet to remain in public view for more than two weeks”—as well as enforcement and fines for blight.
Though neighbors’ complaints of unkempt properties are relatively common in New Canaan, an actual finding of blight is rare. In May 2015, officials cited a Forest Street homeowner for blight (the antique house there has since been replaced) and a Woodridge Circle homeowner was cited for blight the following summer.
According to Platz, parts of New Canaan’s blight ordinance are overly broad or outright unrealistic, and more specificity is needed in definitions of terms such as ‘infestation,’ ‘debris,’ ‘public view’ and ‘rubbish.’
For example, in the definition of blight cited above, the words “clear or open” should be inserted before “public view,” Platz said.
“On more than one occasion I have had had individuals bring me into their up to the third floor, to look out over a fence into a neighbor’s backyard to say, ‘That is blight,’ ” Platz said. “In my opinion, I don’t think that is really what the author of the blight ordinance had in mind. I cannot imagine that if I have to go to my attic, that devalues the property, to look into their yard over my fence.”
The ordinance would benefit from a number of other updates, he said.
For example, “infestation by rodents or other pests” is too broad, he said, where “infestation” may refer only to the “presence” of pests, so that “visiting” raccoons or even a bees nest may qualify. Rather, the ordinance should specify the presence of such pests within a residential dwelling. The definition of “debris” also must be looked at, he said. Currently, it may include autos, boats or recreational vehicles in stages of disrepair, as well as furniture, appliances, cans or containers that may be considered antiques by some, he said.
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, a guest at the meeting, said an ordinance from the Town Council is needed for the findings of a future Blight Committee to be enforceable. Other towns including Darien have had success with their own committees to address blight complaints, Moynihan said.
Platz noted that part of what’s nuanced about addressing blight complaints is that what qualifies as such in one neighborhood may not amount to blight in another. For example, if a resident stacks several cords of firewood on his or her property, it would be more conspicuous at an “in town” home than in the four-acre zone.