June 17, 2018
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New registry of vacant properties in Bangor aims to keep owners accountable

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Monday night that will require property owners who leave a building empty for more than 60 days to register with the city despite concerns raised by some owners that the ordinance would be ineffective and too broad.

If the owner wants to leave their property vacant, they must assign a person or company to maintain it, ensuring that the structure remains sound, the grass is cut and that it’s secure enough to keep out trespassers. The city also must have up-to-date contact information for both parties.

Under the proposed ordinance, there is a minimum $250 fee to register your building. A placard placed on the building would include the names and contact information of the owner and property manager. Martin said that would inform neighbors and give them someone to call if a problem arose, which would give the owner and manager incentive to address concerns.

Those rules would apply whether the property is owned by an individual, corporation or bank.

The ordinance sparked from concerns raised about abandoned and blighted properties in the city, which are dangerous, unsightly and bring down the value of residences around them, city officials have said. Many of these buildings are owned by big banks that took them over in foreclosure, an often tedious and lengthy process.

“We’re hopeful this will start to turn the tides on some of these properties,” Economic and Community Development Director Tanya Emery said during Monday’s meeting.

The ordinance makes exceptions for “snowbirds,” military service members and others with an “intent to return” to the property. People in those situations will not be required to pay a registration fee, but will have to have the property maintained and provide the city with emergency contact information. However, it makes no mention of owners who are renovating the property, trying to sell it or looking for tenants to move in.

That raised questions from some property owners, who aired concerns in advance of the council’s vote.

Emily Ellis, a real estate broker and landlord, argued that “more regulation from the city is really not going to be the answer.” The city already has a code that regulates property maintenance that sometimes goes unenforced, as properties scattered across the city have overgrown lawns and other issues that violate the lengthy code.

She has several properties in the city that haven’t had occupants for a time because they’ve been on the market or are undergoing renovations.

Beau Brigham, who owns several properties in Bangor, questioned whether the ordinance will have the city’s desired effect. He said he has “more than one” building in the city that would be considered vacant under the ordinance.

Brigham said he keeps his properties mowed, secured and in good condition when there are no occupants and people passing by likely wouldn’t notice that they’re vacant.

Jeremy Martin, who leads the city’s code enforcement department, said Brigham and Ellis wouldn’t be among the owners targeted for enforcement by his staff under the new rules, even though the language of the ordinance could be read to apply to them.

“If we were going to write a code that could foresee every circumstance, it would never be done,” Councilor Ben Sprague said.

Martin said his department would use its judgment when enforcing the code, going after long-vacant properties with absentee owners who haven’t been maintaining or securing them. Those are the ones that have been eating up his department’s time, he said.

The problem with many of these abandoned properties is that the city can spend weeks, months or years trying to get in touch with an out-of-state owner with no success, Martin said. That makes the registration requirement vital, he said, because it gives the city someone to call.

Before the ordinance passed committee, Martin began fielding calls from banks asking what they had to do to comply. The lion’s share of abandoned Bangor buildings are owned by banks, who will have to hire Maine companies to maintain them, according to Martin.

“We’re starting to see this play out already,” Martin said.

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