The City of Washington Court House will enforce a property maintenance code on building owners in the Downtown Historical Business District.
City council passed an ordinance that put the maintenance code into effect July 1 for the downtown district.
“The property maintenance code isn’t to tear down buildings, but to fix buildings so it’s not an eye-sore and ideally is made more attractive to rent or sell,” said Washington Court House City Manager Joe Denen in a recent interview about the maintenance code.
The Downtown Historical Business District was formally designated through another city council resolution and includes about six blocks downtown. Building owners are responsible for their building’s maintenance and upkeep, but in the event that buildings become in a state of disrepair, the city’s intention is to impose the maintenance code.
In the Downtown Historical Business District the maintenance code will be used to enforce the upkeep of building identification and signage, window letters, canopies, banners, exterior walls, stairways, decks, porches, balconies, roofs, chimneys, handrails and guards, windows, sky lights, doors, fences, gates, rubbish, garbage, rodent and insect infestation, sidewalks, parking lots, other paved portions of a premise, planters, landscaping, accessory structures, vacant structures and land, sanitation, and outdoor furnishings.
“The maintenance code is a way for the city to say, ‘Hey, here are some issues that need addressed.’ The maintenance code gives us the ability to do that,” said Denen. “We don’t have any desire to be particularly heavy-handed with anybody. Basically in terms of the property maintenance code recently adopted here, it is pretty lenient really. It doesn’t want you to have obvious things wrong that you can view from the street. It does not give us a particular right or ability to go in and inspect somebody’s private property. It’s just what the public can see from the street. It does want you to remove signage of something that isn’t there — can’t keep the old stuff up there. It’s common sense, really.”
Denen said the city has compiled an inventory of the buildings in the downtown district and is first beginning to address the buildings on East Court Street. It will then expand to other parts of downtown.
“They’re through the assessment part of it. The first step is going to be saying to the building owners, ‘Hello, we think we have a problem here, what’s your plan?’ If that doesn’t work we’ll move through the formal process. They’ll get notices,” said Denen.
According to the city council’s maintenance code ordinance, the city must give proper notice of violation by personal delivery, certified mail or posting on the building. If a person ignores the notices or doesn’t address the problems, Denen said they will likely end up in civil court.
“If you didn’t fix the issue or communicate some sort of plan, we could end up in municipal court,” said Denen. “It’s not criminal.”
For example, Denen said if a building has a first-floor broken window on Court Street, the city will send a notice.
“If it’s not addressed we’ll go over to court and stand in front of the judge and say we want the window fixed. There could be a small fine but we could care less about that if they agree to fix the window,” said Denen.
The maintenance ordinance states, “Violation of any of the provisions of this code or failure to comply with a notice of violation issued under this code shall constitute a minor misdemeanor, punishable upon conviction or a plea of guilty by a fine of not more than one-hundred and fifty dollars ($150) plus court costs.”
Denen said the city’s intention isn’t to end up in court but said a person could go to jail if they ignore the court’s order to remedy any problems.
“I would think in that situation you’d have to really work at it and try to get in jail for any minor violation,” said Denen.
Denen said the city’s intention isn’t to punish building owners but rather to work with them and apply a formal communication process to addressing issues.
“I understand that some folks may have some financial obstacles,” said Denen. “We’ve encouraged people to take advantage of the grant opportunity that’s there. If they’re signed up to do the grant we’re not going to clunk them on the head because they’re on a solutions path.”
The city is working with some building owners in the area to apply for a 50/50 grant to offset the costs of building renovations and maintenance.
“At the end of the day there are property owner responsibility along with property owner rights and saying I should be able to ignore it. It might be an opportunity for the property owner to asses whether or not they want to own that piece of real estate. Everybody wants to do what they want to do when they want to do it, and we understand, but sometimes there are things that need to be addressed. I don’t think property maintenance is punitive. It’s a way to communicate issues with everybody. It gives structure.”
Building owners served with a notice of violation may appeal to the Historic District Review Board of the City of Washington Court House, according to the ordinance, “provided that a written letter is filed with the City Manager or the City Manager’s designee within 10 working days of a notice of violation being served. A hearing on the matter will be held at the next general meeting with the Historic Review Board.”
The maintenance code was passed by Washington C.H. City Council in 2016 and went into effect July 1, 2017. For access to a copy of the maintenance code, visit http://www.cityofwch.com/DocumentCenter/View/307
Reach Ashley by calling her at (740) 313-0355 or by searching Twitter.com for @ashbunton