St. Mary’s County seeks solution to blighted properties

St. Mary’s County commissioners are asking state lawmakers to give them authority to deal with blighted properties through a local property maintenance ordinance.

The county government currently can do little more than order that an unsafe building be boarded up.

Before the county can pass a tougher local ordinance, the state legislature must grant the county the authority to do so.

The proposed ordinance would allow county government to declare a property a nuisance and allow the owner to “abate the nuisance” or appeal the determination to the county Board of Appeals or to court, said county Attorney George Sparling.

If the owner does not make corrections to a nuisance property, the county could place a lien on it to do the work to repair it. Charles County has a similar program that started years ago.

In St. Mary’s, a nuisance property would be “reasonably determined to be detrimental to the health, safety, welfare or morals or neighboring properties or their occupants,” according to the proposal from the county legal department.

Sparling said the draft ordinance, which has not been publicly presented, would not cover the height of grass or the aesthetics of a home. A number of factors would be considered in determining a blighted, or nuisance, property, he said.

Peeling paint, graffiti, rust, holes, fractures, extensive fire damage, sagging roofs or decks would be considered. So would vegetation that encroaches on public roads or sidewalks. The open storage of trash, storage of wrecked vehicles or indoor furniture outdoors visible to the public would be factors, as would any infestation of rodents, vermin or the presence of vagrants, Sparling said.

A property owner would have at least 30 days to get in touch with county government to discuss making improvements, he said.

If the state allows the county authority for a property maintenance ordinance during the General Assembly’s winter session, the law would probably take effect Oct. 1 next year. Then a local ordinance could go through public hearings.

Speaking to the commissioners Nov. 2, Sparling cited a specific property on Midway Drive in the Patuxent Park neighborhood in Lexington Park. A vacant house sat for years there in dilapidated condition, while the property owner in a different state did little to correct the problem. The ownership since has changed hands, Sparling said.

“The neighborhood very much wanted something done. The county just didn’t have the authority to do anything about it,” he said.

Two abandoned gas stations sat for years at Great Mills and Chancellor’s Run roads, across from Great Mills High School. St. Mary’s turned down recommendations in 2010 that would have fought such blighted properties.One of the gas stations still stands; the other was bought and razed by a private developer.

Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) said the proposed ordinance “is mainly for egregious situations. It’s not so much aesthetics; it’s the health and welfare thereof.”

A property maintenance task force presented its recommendations to the county commissioners last November. In a March 27 letter, the commissioners expressed hope “that the members of the Task Force and the Chamber [of Commerce] will join the St. Mary’s County Government in urging the St. Mary’s County Legislative Delegation to support enabling legislation in 2013 and permit local government to address this serious problem.” Jarboe did not sign the letter.

Commissioner Dan Morris (R) made two other legislative proposals.

Morris asked for a provision to exempt farmstead lots of 15 acres or larger from new state septic regulations that establish a tier system.

Under tiers three and four in rural areas, new subdivisions using septic systems will be limited to seven homes, no matter how large the property.

“They’ve gone to 1-in-50 [acre] zoning instead of 1-in-5 [acre] zoning, and there is something wrong with that,” Jarboe said.

Morris also proposed to allow the county commissioners to charge the impact fee on new homes based on square footage.

All new homes are charged $4,500 in an attempt to cover the cost of schools, roads and parks that a growing population requires.

“We’re actually penalizing the person building a smaller home,” Jarboe said. People with larger homes pay less per square foot than someone building a smaller one, he said.

The impact fee was increased from $2,000 to $4,500 in 2000.

“A smaller house has people in it, too,” said Commission President Jack Russell (D), and brings an impact to public infrastructure. Year after year, local fiscal studies show the impact fee alone doesn’t cover the actual costs for new schools, roads and parks. “We really need to go up to something that is palatable in our community.”

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