Some South Jersey municipalities are rigidly enforcing their property maintenance laws, a move designed to help improve local economies as much as boost civic pride.
Vineland and Lower Township said they want lawns mowed and trash and debris removed from properties to create more attractive municipalities that will help draw new businesses.
So far this year, Vineland has put liens against 26 properties, issued 10 municipal court summonses and has another 20 cases pending. Lower Township officials have issued 80 property maintenance citations this year, compared with 15 in 2012, with the Bayshore Road commercial strip a prime target for inspections.
Vineland Mayor Ruben Bermudez made cleaning up the city a priority when he took office in January. He said he wanted his city to look as good as possible as part of an effort to bring new businesses to a municipality desperate for jobs.
"Maintaining the property does more than keep neighborhoods attractive," Bermudez said. "It … improves the chances of attracting new economic development and jobs and leads to a healthier environment, which improves the quality of life for everyone."
Egg Harbor Township will send out three part-time inspectors soon to enforce its property maintenance regulations. Mayor Lisa Jiampetti said one of the goals is to stimulate the local economy by attracting new homeowners to the Atlantic County municipality.
"We realize that people are not going to want to move into a town that is dilapidated," Jiampetti said. "We want to make our town attractive to home buyers."
While the recipients of property maintenance code violations may not be happy, municipal officials said it is a matter of fairness.
"The overwhelming majority of Vineland property owners are diligent in making sure that their grass is cut and well maintained," Bermudez said. "We are not looking to harass someone who may have missed a week or two due to bad weather or maybe because they were out of town. Our primary problem results from vacant or abandoned properties which are owned or managed by banks, mortgage companies, developers and absentee landlords who are treating the city as their lawn maintenance service."
"Nobody in this day and age should have to look at a neighbor's property across the street that looks like a dump," Lower Township Manager Michael Voll said.
Property maintenance codes vary a little by municipality. They are designed not only to keep properties neat and clean for public health and safety issues, but they also involve minimum standards for buildings.
Persons cited in violation of the code are given a warning and time to correct the problem. Ignored warnings can result in municipalities taking action, such as mowing unkempt lawns. Municipalities can eventually place liens on those properties to recover the cost of the work.
Not all violations proceed through the system. Municipalities will often drop charges lodged against individuals who are too old or infirm to do the work.
"We are compassionate," Voll said. "If there's a reason why an older person can't do it, we will assist them. The code enforcement guy has discretion … to dismiss the ticket."
Still, crackdowns on those codes can often keep enforcement staff busy. Vineland has three code enforcement officers, and efforts there to clean up his city has those officers getting at least 25 calls a week.
"It can be overwhelming," Code Enforcement Officer Robert Adams said.
Adams was out inspecting several properties on East Landis Avenue on Friday.
One property was a duplex surrounded by yellow-topped weeds, some at least a foot tall. There was a lawn mower at the property, but Adams said it is likely the units are occupied by renters who are not responsible for cutting the grass. Adams said the city will contact the owner, who will be told to neaten the property.
At a second property, a section of the front yard contained piles of debris. Weeds had grown so tall they made a red fire hydrant hard to find.
In both visits, the complaints about the grass and weeds led to other discoveries that Adams said must be corrected. The duplex property had a rusted swing set and a wet, moldy chair that must be removed. The door to the second property had been forced open, and an internal inspection by Adams revealed part of the second floor was open to the floor below.
In Egg Harbor City, Jiampetti said tight budgets have left the municipality with a public works staff too small to handle much of the property maintenance problems. Citing property owners, especially absentee landlords, may be the only way to free the city of that duty, she said.
"We have to keep hammering them," she said.
Contact Thomas Barlas: