Millville property owners are increasingly facing something more daunting than a warning from the city for letting their buildings turn into significant neighborhood nuisances. They could face a wrecking ball.
Millville officials are turning to demolition to deal with an increasing problem of abandoned buildings that are - in part because of sour economic times - falling into disrepair and creating potential health and public safety problems. Some of the buildings targeted by the city have sat empty for years, and a few are used as crack houses.
Throughout South Jersey, towns are taking firmer stances with troublesome properties. Vineland, Egg Harbor City and Lower Township are increasingly enforcing property maintenance codes to improve public safety and health, to spruce up their communities and to help attract new businesses as the economy slowly improves.
The effort is not without its dilemmas: Municipalities face a balancing act of dealing with a nuisance while having compassion for down-on-their-luck residents, many of whom never imagined they would face such economic troubles, said Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
In Millville, some of the abandoned buildings are potential fire hazards. They include two empty downtown duplexes that burned within the past few weeks. Those buildings are already undergoing demolition after the city quickly put liens against the properties to recoup the cost of the work from insurance companies.
In Cumberland County, abandoned, burned out and nuisance properties were a problem when the economy was good.
"People are just giving up," Millville City Commissioner Dale Finch. "They're just walking away from their properties."
Indeed, the problem involves more that just New Jersey's poorest county.
"I have been hearing those kinds of comments (from officials throughout the state)," Dressel said. "You have circumstances surfacing that are beyond the homeowner's ability to meet.
"But if you're dealing with a problem issue that is going to have an impact on the quality of life of not just the resident, but it's something that's going to impact on the neighborhood and community at large, it's something that's got to be addressed," he said. "At some point there comes a point where you have to look at the greater good and make some tough decisions."
Millville City Commission will on Sept. 24 hold hearings to determine whether six nuisance and derelict buildings will be demolished. The city will move on nine more buildings after that, Finch said.
Finch said he understands that, for some residents, making wholesale property improvements is beyond their financial means.
However, Finch said, there are still "basic things you have to do to protect the integrity of the neighborhood."
"We're going to act," he said. "Those places just generate problems, crime, unhealthiness and blight."
Atlantic City is also undergoing a problem with enforcing its building codes, a situation made worse by the struggling economy.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has identified about 150 properties in the city's state-run Tourism District that need immediate demolition or repair. The list of violations includes structural defects, empty lots filled with trash, dead trees, broken fencing and dangerous sidewalks.
CRDA agreed recently to give Atlantic City $130,000 to hire inspectors to work only in the Tourism District. Atlantic City officials, who could not be reached for comment, said earlier they did not have the staff or equipment needed to fully handle incidents in the Tourism District.
Other South Jersey municipalities are also moving to enforce property maintenance codes, even though the effort can stretch limited staffs.
As of July, Vineland put liens against 26 properties, issued 10 municipal court summonses and has another 20 cases pending related to its stepped-up property code enforcement program. The crackdown has the Cumberland County city's three code enforcement officers handling at least 25 calls a week.
"It can be overwhelming," Vineland Code Enforcement Officer Robert Adams said.
Officials in Lower Township, Cape May County, issued 80 property maintenance citations this year as of July, compared with just 15 citations in 2012.
And in Egg Harbor City, Atlantic County, a new program has the municipality citing property owners for code violations in hopes of reducing the cleanup work that has to be done by a strained public works staff.
Not all of the cleanup comes easily, or at the speed at which residents want.
In Egg Harbor City, Cincinnati Avenue resident Chrissy Cavileer spent four years trying to get officials there to remove bamboo from a neighbor's property. The invasive plant wound up destroying some of her trees and damaging her fence.
The work was finally done in June, but only after pressure from Cavileer caused Egg Harbor City officials to add bamboo to the list of plants that could be removed under local laws.
Cavileer is glad the bamboo is finally gone, but laments that "it took four years."
Contact Thomas Barlas: