Loudoun supervisors have unanimously approved a new rule that will let the county government go after unsightly and unsafe properties.
Before, blighted properties in Loudoun were governed by provisions of state building code that only require property owners to take action on unsafe structures, which are defined as “dangerous to the health, safety and welfare of the occupants of the structure or the public,” that contain unsafe equipment, or that are “so damaged, decayed, dilapidated, structurally unsafe or of such faulty construction or unstable foundation that partial or complete collapse is likely.” In those cases, the property owner need only board up the doors and windows.
But the new blight law gives the government authority to clean up a property, and place a lien against it to recoup those expenses.
Under the new process, if someone submits a complaint to the county, and the property owner is unresponsive to a notice requiring a blight abatement plan, the county can take action. The ordinance defines a “blighted property” as any individual commercial, industrial, or residential structure or improvement that endangers the public’s health, safety, or welfare because the structure or improvement upon the property is dilapidated, deteriorated, or violates minimum health and safety standards.” It must be vacant, lacking in upkeep, and unfit for human occupancy.
County leaders already has several properties in mind.
One Loudouner, Keith Kanzler, came to the public hearing on the new ordinance worried that it would open the door to people using the ordinance to harass neighbors with whom they have disputes.
“Some person may have a different idea of blight,” Kanzler said. “I mean, I live in a rural part of the county, and there are some abandoned farm homes.”
He also worried the ordinance could affect people living on limited or fixed incomes.
Supervisors tried to assure Kanzler that the blight ordinance is narrowly written. Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) said he shared Kanzler’s concerns, but “I think that we have adequate protections in there that we’re not going to be doing anything irrational. Everything has to be done on a case by case basis.”
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said it’s also a safety issue—both for first responders, who when a blighted structure catch fire then have to go into a structurally unsound building, and for quelling gang activity in Loudoun. She said often the graffiti on abandoned buildings is actually tagging by gangs.
“When you leave structures up like this and then you leave tags up, what it says to them is there’s nobody around, there’s nobody watching, this is a good place and good way to communicate, and often a good place to meet,” Randall said.
The ordinance exempts farm structures and historic structures, if they are in a historic district, the Virginia Landmarks Register or the National Registry of Historic Places. It also requires a public hearing before any action by the county, and considers whether taking action would make the property impossible to build on under modern regulations, or whether the cost of removing the blighted structure would be more than the value of the property.
The new ordinance was approved 8-0-1, with Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) absent. The blight ordinance was in large part driven forward by Letourneau, who was absent for medical reasons.