Editor’s Note: This story is the first part of an ongoing series delving into the issue of blight in the Marshall community and how a potential new vacant property ordinance will affect that problem.
For the past few months, Marshall councilmembers and staff have been working on and considering the adoption of a new vacant property registration ordinance with the goal of halting the cycle of blight within the city.
Initially proposed by councilmember Vernia Calhoun, the ordinance would create a required registration system for property owners whose buildings, whether residential, commercial or industrial, are vacant for 90 days or more.
The News Messenger has investigated the potential new ordinance, along with the ongoing issue of blight faced by Marshall communities, and how the two will affect each other if approved.
The ordinance is not yet approved by council, but is close to approval, with council members instructing Community and Economic Development Director Fabio Angell to make slight changes to the proposed ordinance at the Nov. 10 council meeting before bringing it to the group.
The ordinance would have the city contract with a third-party company to research properties within Marshall city limits that would fit the ordinance standards, as being vacant for 90 days or more, and determine who the owner of that property is.
Michael Halpern with MuniReg LLC, one such company, presented to council earlier in the year on the benefits of having a third-party company do this work, rather than have it done in-house.
Halpern said that the company gets paid through the registration fees they collect through the registration ordinance, therefore adding no additional financial strain on the city to have the ordinance operational.
Councilmembers all approved the idea of hiring a third-party company to run the ordinance, which would free city staff to focus on the influx of information on the properties uncovered by the new vacant property ordinance.
Halpern said that his company would reach out to property owners once they are discovered, whether they are individuals, banks or LLCs, to register their vacant properties to the ordinance. Registration includes a fee.
The fee structure for the new ordinance is based on the square footage of the property but would not exceed $500. However, violation of the ordinance would result in a Class C Misdemeanor, and every day the violation continues is an additional offense.
The ordinance would also require an action plan, an outline for which would be provided by the city, and provides for a number of exemptions to the ordinance. Exemptions include for military service members and properties that are listed for sale.
What to Expect
If the ordinance were approved by councilmembers, Angell said that it would be an additional 30 to 45 days before property owners will likely begin to be contacted to register for the ordinance.
Once the owner has been contacted, they have 21 days to register for the ordinance before they are in violation.
This, however, only affects property that has previously been vacant for more than 90 days. New vacancies will have the 90-day period to register for the ordinance before they are in violation, according to Angell.
“Certainly as soon as we are able to identify these properties (as vacant for more than 90 days) and send out notifications,” he said.
Angell said that, each year, the City of Marshall averages about 450 to 550 vacant properties, with an additional 175 substandard structures that are likely in need of demolition.
“All would need to pay a registration fee as a start,” he said.
After the fee, city staff will work with property owners to create, complete, review and eventually approve their property’s action plan.
This, Angell said, would require the city to bring on more staffing, aside from the small team currently employed in the Code Enforcement department.
“Implementing the ordinance will certainly involve more staff time, paperwork and processing as we follow through with each particular owner, once the registration is kick started,” Angell said, “It is a higher level of customer service, code enforcement and legal procedures in a very comprehensive way, detail and extent we had not been done before. We will certainly need to adjust and make room for this task among our regular day-to-day Code Enforcement duties.”
The exact number of property owners that city staff will have to work with, and how much additional staff and time that would require, is unknown right now.
Angell added that this, along with the added work required if a property were to go through the lien process, and in many cases through the demolition and foreclosure processes, will require additional assistance, since the city will be required to keep track of all of the properties and move them along each specific stage of the process.
“Over the next 12 months, we will gather actual data that will help us evaluate the entire process. It is a bridge we as a community will need to cross over the next year or so. In the need, this will help us adjust accordingly, so we can get ready for the second season in 2023.
“If not us, who? If not now, when?” Angell said.