Prince George’s tearing down blighted, foreclosed houses, stepping up code enforcement

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post - Neighborhood activist Mary Brigham is helped by pastor Victor McGodman at a house demolition / in Landover on May 15. Legal wrangling has prevented it's earlier demolition. County officials today announced they have a few dozen more they'll be demolishing in the near future.

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As the Prince George’s County Council debates details of the $2.7 billion budget, there is one issue where all appear to agree: The time has come to redo the county’s code enforcement and permitting system.

Tucked inside County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) budget proposal is a plan that would create a new Department of Permits, Inspection and Enforcement , and with it a new system to overhaul how the county deals with vacant houses, uncut grass and other neighborhood nuisances. Council members have uniformly said they back the plan. Council chairman Andrea C. Harrison (D-Springdale) lauded the plan recently, saying that some of her constituents had been pushing “for 20, 25 years” to get derelict properties fixed up or town down.

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Baker’s administration is not waiting for final budget action. In the past few months, county officials in the Department of Environmental Resources have torn down 40 vacant or abandoned houses and say they another 38 waiting for the bulldozer. The new enforcement agency, which will oversee the teardowns, is expected to be split off from the environment agency after the budget is approved later this month

“How they look is a reflection of ourselves,” said Adam Ortiz, the county’s acting director of the Department of Environmental Resources, of the vacant properties. “Each drags down the value and the dignity of the neighborhood.”

Ortiz estimates that problem properties devalue neighboring homes by as much as $17,000, a significant sum in a county where many homeowners owe more on their houses than they are valued, and where the foreclosure rate remains Maryland’s highest.

Ortiz said that many of the houses the county has torn down recently have been vacant for five or more years. In one Landover neighborhood, residents said that there was at least one house that had been a problem for 25 years.

To move matters along more quickly, Ortiz and Department of Environmental Resources deputy director Gary Cunningham and their staffs have come up with a 25- part program to speed up elimination of problem properties, or encourage their rehabilitation.

Relying on a section of county law that had been used infrequently, officials are send violation notices to owners claiming the properties pose a threat to public safety, and insisting that they either repair or demolish the property within 30 days. Previously, a lengthy legal process that often found the county in court for years has slowed the removal of troublesome properties, Ortiz said.

Ortiz is also looking an bolstering fines, which in some case are not imposed at all when there is a violation; setting up a quasi-judicial system and administrative hearing process to eliminate court challenges and speed up challenges to violation notices; enhancing employee training; and assigning inspectors to work weekends, when many violations occur. The environmental resources agency also is improving its computer systems to make it easier for inspectors to issue violations.

Mary Brigham, a Landover resident who has been trying to get the county to deal with a long-vacant house, said she was pleased by the new program for code enforcement.

“I am excited, I am really excited,” she said just before Ortiz and Baker presided over the demolition of a house Wednesday on Hawthorne Street in Landover.

“If they got up this street they are coming down mine,” she said.

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