Slow progress dealing with residential and commercial blight in Frederick

The issue of “blight” in the City of Frederick has been getting a significant amount of attention in the press lately and many residents seem to be losing patience with city leaders.

Sadly, it seems that as much as blight is a problem in Frederick, the problem is compounded by the City of Frederick’s inadequate response to the situation, specifically the repeated fallings of Mayor Randy McClement to show some vision or leadership on the issue. On it’s surface the issue of blight appears to be fairly straightforward and somewhat superficial.

But, in fact, it encompasses a number of issues that go far beyond aesthetics and require a dynamic and sustained response in order to be dealt with effectively. Once addressed properly, a municipality that is effectively addressing the issue has the potential to transform their community and improve the quality of life for all of its citizens.

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Blight, as defined by the dictionary, means: a disease, something that causes harm or damage like a disease, or, that in general appears to be in a damaged condition. Urban, commercial and residential blight specifically, while certainly appearing visually as damaged and an eyesore on our streetscapes, also creates potential nuisances that can lead to increased criminal activity, impair economic growth and community development and negatively impact surrounding property values; all of which are very significant impacts on residents of a community, especially those that live and work directly adjacent to blighted properties.

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In 2012, Mayor Randy McClement convened The Blighted and Vacant Property Ad-Hoc Committee, the purpose of which was to “evaluate the current status of and policies regarding vacant and blighted commercial and residential properties in the city, and recommend policy initiatives (regulations and incentives) to encourage/require reasonable maintenance, reinvestment and occupancy of such properties.”

The 15-member committee was broken into two phases, one that addressed Commercial Properties and a second phase that focused on Residential Properties. Two reports were generated by the committees, each of which included a list of recommendations, which essentially amounted to “The Committees determined that the current tools (in Frederick) are not wholly sufficient to reduce residential vacancy, blight, and stabilize at-risk neighborhoods.”

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Sadly however, despite the tremendous amount of time that the committee members put into this effort, Mayor McClement disbanded the committee without appearing to enact any of their recommendations.

Six months after the committees had submitted their findings and nothing appeared to be happening, I personally wrote Mayor McClement to inquire as to which of the committees recommendations he had implemented. The Mayor responded on July 23, 2013 acknowledging that blight was a serious problem in the city and stated that he had initiated the “Development of a code violation database to track and help build a case against problem properties, escalating fines for code violations, increased resources for code enforcement – Smart Phones technologies, etc. and information and data sharing between Code Enforcement, Police, and Fire.”

As it turns out however, at the time the Mayor wrote this, it was not accurate information. As revealed in a recent Mayoral press conference and Mayor & Board workshop on the issue, none of these items had been implemented, and none appear to have been initiated until March of 2014. And that was only after several unflattering articles in the Frederick News Post and a public protest and march on City Hall by more than 70 concerned citizens. Not to mention that the recommendations that were supposed to have been implemented in July of 2013 were only a few of the many good suggestions the committee produced.
 
In the interim, the Mayor and Board of Aldermen had addressed the question of receivership, which would give the city more authority and a process to seize chronically blighted properties. While that step was commendable, the mayor ignored many of the basic recommendations made to the City of Frederick. In addition, the City of Frederick’s Code Enforcement appeared to struggle to enforce the existing code and bring long blighted properties into compliance.

In response to the inaction, a few of us started the “City of Frederick’s Blight Problem” page on Facebook as a way to engage the public on the issue and encourage City Hall and the general public to help keep the conversation moving.

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Even after repeated attempts to communicate with the mayor and Dan Hoffman, the Division Manager of Code Enforcement, we received no responses to offers to highlight Code Enforcement successes, to suggestions about how best to engage the public, and to requests for lists of blighted properties, etc.

Instead, a City of Frederick Code Enforcement employee began impugning the administrators of the new Facebook page. Even though the “City of Frederick’s Blight Problem” page now has close to 750 “likes” and is one of the most popular community pages in Frederick County, the Mayor wouldn’t even discuss the issue with me. The only response from anyone at Frederick’s City Hall to the page has been in the form of harassment from city staff!

It is worth noting that, around the country, Facebook has frequently been a way for citizens — and even code enforcement departments — to address issues such as blight. Unfortunately, however, City Hall has not been interested in engaging or working with citizens in that venue.

Despite the frustrating lack of engagement, the posts and discussions on the Facebook page have helped connect people and share information, and nourish an organic citizen’s effort to highlight and address the problem.

This ad hoc effort also let to the recent protest about the issue. That led to additional media coverage and a broader awareness of the problem of blight in Frederick. And that likely helped motivate the mayor to direct staff to implement some of the items that had been recommended earlier by the Blighted and Vacant Property Ad-Hoc Committee, and to put the issue of blight and Code Enforcement on the agenda for the Mayor & Board workshop which occurred this past week.

Honestly though, it never should have been so difficult to get elected officials and city staff to do take these steps.

It is more than frustrating that Mayor McClement has not been more willing to seize the initiative on the issue of blight, despite concerted efforts to convey the impact of the persistent problem, and the opportunity we have to improve our community in a significant, positive manner.

The mayor and city staff appear to have gotten bogged down in process and semantics, when he could have been providing more leadership on a problem that is hurting downtown Frederick, and has been for a while. Instead of being more engaged with the public, via Facebook or some other medium, for too long he and his staff have largely ignored the citizens attempts to engage with him effectively on this issue.

The mayor has already had many of the tools he needs to deal with the problem.

Blight and serial code violations in a community tend to be caused by four sorts of property owners:

• The elderly who cannot physically handle the upkeep of their property, and,,,

• Those who cannot afford to properly care for their property, and…

• Property owners who are chronic or repeat offenders who simply don’t care, and…

foreclosure• Vacant properties that have either been foreclosed on or otherwise lost in the shuffle of the economic downturn, and have fallen into disrepair.

Instead of resisting concerned and active citizens who have wanted to address the issue of blight, Mayor McClement should be engaging the community.

Every block in the city likely has elderly or low income residents that could use some help in maintaining their property, and it would be great if the city was helping to connect these residents with non-profits or other resources in some way.

It would be a good idea to reinstate the Blighted Property Committee, or a similar sort of citizens review committee in the code enforcement process. Among other things, it would help ensure citizens and properties are not falling through the cracks.

It also seems to be a problem that Frederick has taken a “complaint driven” approach to the problem. That means that the only way blight and code violations get identified or reported is when citizens make formal complaints about their neighbors. Many communities across the country have “Blight Patrols” that help identify blight in their communities. Clearly that helps identify problems, but it also takes some of the burden off residents.

Following the original recommendations of the Blighted Property Committee, the city was supposed to examine the connection between blighted properties and other issues, such as 911 calls. This has yet to be done and staff appears to be struggling with the concept.

Also, the mayor could issue a decree making one month a year ‘Fight the Blight’ month. We have ‘Small Business Month’ and other types of months. Why not a city sponsored month devoted to highlighting and fighting blight, in part by actively engaging citizens and organizations. Taking a more assertive tack, the city could probably accomplish more in a month than we have in the last decade.

None of these potential solutions were really dealt with at the recent mayor and board workshop. Instead, two hours were spent going over agenda items and discussing the city’s definition of blight. But no matter how the city specifically or legally defines blight; residents know what buildings in downtown Frederick have been vacant or in disrepair, in some cases for many years.

Good and thorough process is important, but residents that have paid attention have seen committees established, only to see their recommendations ignored. And they have seen Code Enforcement turn a blind eye to long-festering problems, some in the heart of downtown.

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Dealing with blight effectively won’t be accomplished by compiling lists of agenda items in response to growing public concern and outcry. Blight is not effectively dealt with by having a meeting on the subject once in a while.

Blight is dealt with effectively when elected officials make a genuine commitment to engage the public in meaningful and sustained way. City Hall should not be fighting residents who are attempting to make their community a better place. There have been signs of progress in Frederick, but we still have a very long way to go, and residents continue to wait.


More information

The City of Frederick’s Blight Problem on Facebook

Blighted and Vacant Property Committee
Phase 1 – Commercial Property Recommendations Report (15 pages)
Phase 2 – Residential Property Recommendations Report (21 pages)

THE CITY OF FREDERICK
MAYOR AND BOARD OF ALDERMEN
ORDINANCE NO: G-13-20
AN ORDINANCE concerning Receivership of blighted buildings
“FOR the purpose of creating procedures under which the City may petition the District Court for appointment of a receiver to rehabilitate blighted structures, to demolish blighted structures, or to sell blighted structures and associated real property to qualified buyers.”

Frederick News Post
Aldermen, residents want more action against blighted properties
Thursday, April 3, 2014

Frederick News Post
Young presents blight bill to Senate committee
Thursday, March 13, 2014

Frederick News Post
Protesters gather outside Asiana to fight Frederick blight
Thursday, March 13, 2014

Frederick News Post Editorial
Time to make it stick
Thursday, March 13, 2014

Frederick News Post
City blight: Mayor: City code is being enforced
Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Frederick News Post
City issues Asiana owners $10,000 in citations for structural, safety violations
Saturday, March 8, 2014

Frederick News Post Editorial
Haunting North Market Street
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Frederick News Post
City offers Asiana owners extensions as community waits
February 24, 2014

Frederick Gorilla
People’s Politico: A Better Way To Fight Blight
By Jennifer Dougherty
January 27, 2014

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