Town Council Revises Building Code to Combat Blight

The Derry Town Council has approved a revision to its Building Code that will make it easier for the town to be proactive about unkempt buildings and unsightly lots, commonly known as “blight.”

The Council reviewed the revisions to Chapter 30 of the Building Code at its Dec. 16 meeting and unanimously approved them.

Building Inspector/Code Enforcement Officer Bob Mackey presented the revisions to the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC), which was adopted by the town in 2005 and last revised in 2009.

An ordinance revision committee has been meeting, with Town Councilor Tom Cardon as chair, Mackey said.

Mackey wrote in a memo that “The RSAs of the state of New Hampshire grant power to municipalities that support our authority to control most of these issues. The Town has in place the powers under certain statutes to order a building to be repaired and under certain conditions, demolished.”

Mackey said that his office has been using the regulations all along in landlord-tenant disputes and complaints about trash. With the amendments, he said, his office and the town can “educate property owners, more effectively enforce the ordinance and maintain a safer community.”

Mackey said the revisions deal mostly with Chapter 3 of the Building Code, which addresses the outside of properties.

Central to the increased enforcement is a proposed Property Maintenance Committee, which will be charged with listing “distressed properties,” setting priorities and goals, dealing with property owners to resolve issues, and, if necessary, recommending the levying of fines according to the IPMC, which can be up to $275 per day of non-compliance.

Council member Joshua Bourdon liked the idea, noting that, “Many residents and business owners want to see progress in this area.” He asked Mackey, “What have we accomplished since we adopted the code in 2005?”

Mackey said the code has been successfully employed in the landlord-tenant disputes. He recently used it in getting a downtown property owner to deal with smashed windows in an empty building, he said. “But it’s never been used in a proactive sense,” he added.

Councilor Al Dimmock reminded the Council and audience that the committee will be advisory in nature, in line with the Highway Safety Committee. He volunteered to be on the committee.

But Dimmock warned that Mackey is dealing with, in essence, absentee landlords. “You can impose all the fines you want,” he said. “But what happens if they don’t pay?” The cost of razing the building and reselling the land could be a financial burden on the town, he said.

Member Phyllis Katsakiores also expressed concern about absentee landlords. Mackey said the revisions in the ordinance will allow him to “keep the pressure on.”

Mackey added that some of the most extreme cases would fall to the Council to decide, “and they would have to make some tough decisions.”

In the public hearing resident Marc Flattes called attention to two different paragraphs, one about “abandoned” property and one about “vacant” property. Flattes objected to the “vacant” designation, saying that many homes for sale stay vacant for 60 days or more. Flattes, who is looking to buy a house, asked, “How would that attract me as someone who wants to buy something? This doesn’t exclude residences.”

Mackey said the ordinance refers primarily to buildings that have been abandoned. “If it’s being actively marketed, this does not apply,” he said.

The intention, Mackey said, is “not to go in and board up buildings that are viable.”

“It’s just another tool for Code Enforcement,” Cardon said. “We’re not going to board up every building that’s been vacant for 60 days.”

The buildings to be boarded would be those carrying a risk of criminal activity or public safety concerns, Mackey said.

Council Chair Mark Osborne asked, “In enforcing these changes, does it come with a reasonable amount of discretion?” Mackey said it did.

Steve Trefethen, a community member and Realtor, said in his opinion, the ordinance doesn’t need the term “vacant.” He recommended the paragraph on “securing vacant property” be eliminated.

But Councilor Michael Fairbanks disagreed, saying, “Abandoned and vacant mean two different things. I can see why it’s in there.”

Planning Director George Sioras recommended passage of the revisions, saying, “We’ve been talking about this on the Downtown Committee for a couple of years. It’s a great tool.”

Osborne reminded the Council that the committee to revise the ordinance was put together almost a year before in response to community concerns.

“No proposed law is perfect,” he said. “If we waited on every law, we’d never have a single law on the books.”

The Council voted 7-0 to approve the revisions.