Blight Ordinance

Last year, Windsor Locks passed a new blight ordinance. I guess the old ordinance may have had some problems, but it sounds like the real problem was that it provided homeowners with too much due process so it wasn’t possible to have an angry neighbor’s will imposed without the hassle of going through the courts. But, due process concerns aside, it also outlaws things that are commonplace in Windsor Locks and which are clearly not blight by any common definition of the word. It turns out it’s not hard to get a majority of attendees at a town meeting to vote for whatever poorly-written thing is proposed. Here is a list of concerns I have with the ordinance as passed.

It claims to address every one of society’s problems.

The purpose of this Chapter is to define, prohibit and establish procedures for abating nuisances, including blight, to protect, preserve, and promote public health, safety and welfare, and to preserve and protect property values.

We already have numerous ordinances related to public health, safety, and so on. The only goal of a blight ordinance should be to address blight. Also, what a sentence!

It applies to obstructions of your own private sidewalk.

PUBLIC NUISANCE – The active or passive creation or maintenance of any condition or the performance of any activity which unreasonably hinders the reasonable use and enjoyment of adjacent properties or other units within the same property or interferes with the use of a public or private sidewalk, street, or right-of-way.

It defines a public nuisance as something that interferes with use of a private sidewalk, but it doesn’t say that it must be somebody else’s private sidewalk. As written, this means that having a gate in your own yard on your own sidewalk is a violation of the ordinance.

It is vague and overbroad.

It is dilapidated or becoming dilapidated as documented by the Building Official;

This is part of the definition of Blighted Premises. Everything is becoming dilapidated from the day it is first constructed. All language here should give homeowners objective criteria to abide by.

All fences shall be maintained. Such maintenance shall include, but not be limited to, repainting if needed and the replacement or repair of fences which are in substantial disrepair.

What counts as substantial disrepair?

Grass, weeds or similar ground cover shall not reach a height of greater than twelve (12) inches on any premises.

Why do they care about the height of the ground cover in my woods?

It unnecessarily restricts vehicle ownership, in direct conflict with existing town ordinances.

There are abandoned, inoperable or unregistered motor vehicles on the premises

This text came from the definition of Blighted Premises, but an unregistered (or abandoned/inoperable, for that matter) vehicle is not necessarily unattractive.

provided, however that one inoperable or unregistered vehicle may be maintained upon the premises provided:

(1) That the motor vehicle shall be rendered safe and inaccessible. The motor vehicle’s exterior shall be fully intact and shall be locked or otherwise secured. The motor vehicle shall be free of jagged, sharp, or protruding metal or glass parts. The motor vehicle shall be covered and secured by a motor vehicle cover designed for such use. Tarps or other plastic covers are not acceptable.

This exception is not much of an exception at all. It forecloses the possibility of a project car or even a car with accident damage, as neither would ever be fully intact. It also requires that a vehicle be covered with a proper car cover, even if it is in the garage. This last point is a big part of the issue here. Most towns include language in their blight ordinance stating that it applies to things in the public view, or things not inside a garage. The visionaries that wrote the Windsor Locks blight ordinance don’t want you to keep your accident damaged car in your garage unless it is first completely repaired and then covered with a car cover.

There was a news article at the time stating that, at one of the meetings leading up to this being passed, a majority of residents raised their hands to indicate that they didn’t want to allow any unregistered cars at all on the premises. This is one of the big problems in Windsor Locks. Many residents don’t care if they pass ordinances that negatively impact you, even if it gains them nothing. They don’t want to be hassled with actually discussing the issue at length in order to write good policy that works for everybody.

To compound the stupidity, the Board of Selectmen should have known that there was already another ordinance (Chapter 335: Vehicles, Abandoned or Inoperable) which specifically allows for two junked vehicles, one for repair and one for parts. In my view, the job of the Board of Selectmen is to research this type of thing before bringing it to a town vote. How is the average citizen to know about the nuance of these rules if the Selectmen don’t even know? Interestingly, while that old ordinance does have some problems, the authors of the blight ordinance could have taken some pointers from it, as it specifically exempts any vehicle in a garage.

It gives the blight officer the ability to enforce any state or local law, without providing for due process.

(g) It violates any state statutes or regulations; the Windsor Locks Charter, ordinances or regulations; or the conditions of any zoning or use permits granted by any state or municipal agency;

This is from the definition of Blighted Premises. It is obviously unconstitutional, as anybody accused of committing a serious crime (or any crime, actually) on their property should be tried in a court of law with proper provisions for due process. This is no time for the blight officer to get involved.

All clothing donation and collection bins may only be placed upon a property in accordance with the zoning regulations.

A condition that violates the Connecticut State Building Code shall be considered a property maintenance violation.

Steps, walks, driveways and other paved areas shall be repaired if they impede safe passage.

If something is already covered in the zoning ordinances or state building code, that should be the only place where it is covered. Any safety issue is surely also already covered elsewhere. The town should not have the option to punish people under the blight ordinance just because it’s easier. In fact, oftentimes states really don’t like towns stealing state revenue by overriding state regulations with local ordinances.

It covers all sorts of other things that are not blight, because they are not in the public view.

The owner of the property shall remove discarded or inoperative appliances, furnishings or machinery and shall not maintain upholstered furniture in outdoor locations.

Why outdoor locations? Why not locations in the public view? What business is it of mine if my neighbor has an antique appliance of some sort on his patio, particularly if it’s attractive and out of the public view?

A non-operative or broken electrical or other sign shall be repaired or removed.

I know of a house that has an antique gas pump on display. That is a violation of this provision if for some reason the sign no longer lights up. But why should it? It’s antique and not expected to still be in service!

He had better bring a warrant!

The Blight Officer may initiate inspections and investigations.

There are a few statements like this that just gloss over the fact that there are higher laws. The blight officer can’t just come in my garage to investigate a complaint of an unregistered car.