New city law requires maintenance of vacant structures
The Nome Common Council took several decisions at its meeting May 9 that will affect some lives in the community in new ways, but the big kahuna was the approval of a vacant structures maintenance ordinance.
According to a survey, one third of Nome’s structures are vacant. According to another survey by Nome Planning Commission several years ago, getting rid of junky derelict structures ranked high on the list of public concerns.
The new law requires owners of vacant structures to register them with the City of Nome to secure them and become responsible for maintaining them in a way that takes them out of the category of ugly sources of safety risks and makes them easier on the eyes or even become useful as shelters. According to the law, the registrations must include contact information for owners or designate another person who can be reached by City officials or emergency services if necessary.
The law replaces the city’s abatement law, which has not produced a significant departure of eyesores.
The registration fee is $25 per property. The law exempts property vacated seasonally by “snowbirds” and property temporarily unoccupied by those away on vacation, business travel or other causes.
At least, proponents in the audience and around the council table hoped the measure would clean up Nome neighborhoods of neglected structures by producing a desire in owners to demolish them or rehab or sell them to eventually become cozy homes to ease the current housing shortage.
The ordinance would lead to improving the community, making neighborhoods safe, clean and well maintained, said Sara Lizak, member of Nome Planning Commission. “It could help solve the housing crisis and open up land to build affordable housing on.”
The requirements would motivate people who own properties and never come to Nome to sell them, Lizak added. The vacant derelicts “are impacting neighborhoods and bringing down property values.”
Trash, junk, debris, building materials, inoperative vehicles, discarded clothing, appliances, containers, as examples may not collect on the property. This item generated the usual Nome debate on what is trash and what is useful storage against future need in a community remote from the road system and a variety of stores for supplies.
Councilman Matt Culley could see the town getting cleaned up and looking pretty. He wanted to have old shacks no longer considered untouchable historical treasures.
“Are we going to attach “historical” to everything old?” he asked.
Opponents of the law as written urged caution in various degrees or flat out opposed it.
Carl Emmons said the solution to vacant structures might lie elsewhere.
“To me, it’s a land grab. You can look up the owner on tax rolls,” Emmons said. “Maybe you should be looking at the cost of energy. Are some of them empty because folks can’t afford to heat them?
“If you get the cost of energy down, people can afford to fix them up so people can live in them,” Emmons said, alluding to fuel oil costing $600 for 100 gallons.
“Remember why we live here—for freedom and the city not telling us what to do,” Mark Johnson told the council. “The cost [of fixing] is prohibitive. That’s why the buildings are the way they are,” he added.
Councilman Louis Green found the ordinance incomplete and needing more work, he said. “Very few people understand it. I recommend to vote it down.”
With a couple amendments, the ordinance garnered enough council approval to attain adoption with a 4 to 2 vote.
Before the vote, the council amended the vacant structure ordinance to restore the abatement process to rid the neighborhoods of derelicts should the vacant structure registry plan fail to get action on certain structures.
Next, on a motion by Councilman Jerald Brown, they kicked out references to the IBC International Property Maintenance Code.
The IPMC regulates minimum maintenance requirements for existing buildings. It establishes minimum standards for basic equipment, ventilation, light, heating, sanitation and fire safety.
Applying the maintenance code to existing structures “made him nervous,” Councilman Stan Andersen said.
Following the IMPC on maintaining old structures was prohibitive, Bobby Madden offered. The council should take close look at the international code before adopting a law including its requirements. Did it apply to existing structures, he asked, referring to two old buildings in the back yard he used for storage?
“Are they vacant buildings or storage? Do I have to put in new windows? I don’t have that kind of money,” Madden said. “Look before you adopt something, before you or the town understands what it affects.”
During debate and even after the council adopted the ordinance, Nomeites advised that incentives, say property tax breaks, for clearing or fixing structures would bring about more change and beautification in the community than fines.
He favored property tax credit for a set period as an incentive for fixing up vacancies, Councilman Matt Culley said.
“The property improvement would cause the property tax to go up, and the city would get the incentive money back,” he said.
He saw penalties and fines, Derek McLarty said, but “where are the incentives,” he asked. “Why the registry? Cleanliness, safety, revenue, you can address with a carrot [incentive].”
“We would do a lot better if we offered candy sometimes rather than salt,” Councilman Tom Sparks said.
Anderson had a rejoinder. “Why not offer candy to people doing something with their property?” he asked.
As it is, the law sets minor offense penalties and charges to effect enforcement. Each 30 days of continued violation is a separate offense and fine, as examples:
• Failure to register, $100.
• Failure to keep contact information current, $50.
• Failure to maintain and secure property: A monthly monitoring fee of $50 may be assessed against the record owner to offset the City’s cost to respond to phone calls, complaints, inquiries, site visits, record owner contacts, and monitoring the site. Monitoring shall not begin until 30 days after the owner has received notice of violations.
Vacant structures left open for more than 30 days after notice requiring the owner to take security measures will be subject to entry by the City in order to determine whether it has become an attractive nuisance or is in violation of security requirements. The City may charge the owner a securing fee of $50 or for the cost of securing the property, whichever is higher.
In other business, Nome Public Schools Superintendent Shawn Arnold presented a preliminary school budget in the amount of $15,168,882. Changes would occur in the FY-2017 budget what salaries and benefits were set, Arnold said. NPS is asking a City of Nome contribution of $2,014,952, same amount as last year.
In other kiddie business, the council proclaimed June 11 as Lemonade Day Nome, when youngsters will set up their lemonade sales stands, a community-wide event providing children an opportunity to learn entrepreneurial thinking and create a foundation for success in the global economy, according to the resolution.