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New plan to tackle eyesores: Middle Township plans changes to improve property maintenance

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — The slides just kept coming, as Sgt. James Loftus showed Middle Township Committee the buildings listed as vacant or abandoned throughout the township.

Some were in the heart of Cape May Court House, the historic county seat and site of the county’s Superior Court. Others were in quiet areas of Goshen or in Whitesboro neighborhoods, in distant Reeds Beach overlooking the Delaware Bay or so overgrown in shrubs and trees as to be nearly invisible, on major roadways and on rarely traveled side streets.

Each was vacant, abandoned or in disrepair.

Township Business Administrator Elizabeth Terenik plans to present an amended property maintenance ordinance to Township Committee for introduction Nov. 19, to include new tools for the township to address structures deemed as dangerous or at least as eyesores.

At the committee’s workshop meeting Monday, Nov. 5, Loftus and other speakers laid out the problems faced by the township. In 2017, the township’s code enforcement operations was moved under the Police Department, with Loftus leading the division.

On Monday, he told Township Committee these properties hurt the township, with lost tax revenue and depressed assessments, and hurt neighbors by damaging values and the quality of life. They also damage the town as a whole when visitors see boarded windows and dilapidated buildings.

Throughout the township, most properties are well kept, Terenik said at the beginning of the meeting.

“The majority of properties are very well maintained. You can see the pride in property owners by the way they keep their properties,” she said. “However, there are a small number of properties that have fallen into disrepair and in some cases have been abandoned or an eyesore for years.”

Improvements have been made, she said, with consistent enforcement of the township’s code and increased efforts to address the issue.

Each property has its own story, she said, with a unique set of circumstances leading to the problem.

“So there’s no one solution to solving the problem,” she said.

Loftus showed slides of numerous properties, often describing the efforts of township construction official Salvatore DeSimone, code enforcement officer Jim Amenhauser working with Mike Elias and consultant John Thompson, who was hired to keep track of the abandoned properties throughout the township.

In some cases, improvements have been made, Loftus said in his presentation. He pointed to some other instances in which he said an owner does just enough to satisfy the local ordinance but does not address the deeper problems.

In other cases, owners are elderly or have a limited income and cannot afford to make needed repairs. The township tries to work with owners to find ways to get the improvements completed. Sometimes, after a bank forecloses, he said, the former owner remains living in the house, or squatters or others may make use of vacant houses.

Loftus said the township does not have the power to compel an owner to paint or power wash a building when neighbors have complaints. He added that the township doe not want to see historic buildings reach the condition where they cannot be preserved.

“We don’t want to lose any historic properties due to neglect,” he said.

In many instances, the problem properties are owned by banks or held in trust, making enforcement problematic. Even if a building is kept up to code, just having an empty building can damage property values in the neighborhood, Terenik said. At times, repairs to roofs and windows made with plywood are only marginally better than neglecting the property.

Proposed changes to the existing ordinance could include requiring windows be installed instead of windows being boarded up. Other changes would combine and clarify two sections of the existing township code, which officials said have caused confusion in enforcement.

Consultant Dale Finch proposes the township combine its property maintenance ordinance and the section dealing with unsafe buildings. He proposes a new article to update the ordinance to meet the international property maintenance code.

The proposed amendment will also address trash and debris removal and overgrown properties, reducing the included height of grass and weeds from 10 inches to 6 inches. The township already puts a lien on properties when township employees cut the grass or make repairs. Finch told the public and the Township Committee that another proposed amendment would include a $100 administrative fee to also be included for every instance, with each lien coming due with the next property tax payment each quarter.

“Once they see that extra charge on their property tax, they’re going to say ‘what’s this all about? I’d better start taking care of my property.’ It’s a tool to help you do that,” he said.

If Township Committee introduces an ordinance at its next meeting, the proposed changes would have to be published and a public hearing held before a final vote, after which the changes could go into effect.

According to Thompson, contracted by the township to enforce the vacant property ordinance, about 210 properties in the township are in the foreclosure process, with about 92 vacant. About 90 properties are owned by banks, which can mean a long delay before they can be put up for sale.

Since he started, he said, 177 similar properties have been sold either to an investor or a first-time homeowner.

Police Chief Christopher Leusner described the issue in terms of public safety.

“We were looking at how can we prevent crime? How can we have changes to the community to make sure that it’s more safe? This is one of the biggest complaints that we’ve had, and I know Township Committee has had, is about these properties that have come into disrepair,” he said. “I believe that we are preventing crime by being proactive and addressing these issues.”

Leusner said he has seen a difference in the community since the effort began.

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