Residents express concerns over Cheshire blight ordinance during public hearing

CHESHIRE — Residents got the chance to voice opinions on a proposed new blight ordinance being considered by the Town Council, with some expressing concern over how the policy would be utilized.

At the council public hearing held Oct 12, Ordinance Committee Chairman David Veleber introduced the new policy to the public, as well as some changes that he and the committee made based on public concerns.

“We’ve gone through the particulars (of the ordinance) previously, but we already have some proposed revisions that we as a committee have discussed,” Veleber said. “The first is an addition to the ‘declarations and purpose’ section of the ordinance. We added a piece to explain that this ordinance is really for serious violations, and should not be used to punish people.”

The text added to the “declarations and purpose” section reads as follows: “The intent and purpose of this ordinance is to provide the Town of Cheshire with a tool to address serious conditions — conditions which jeopardize the health, safety, welfare, and/or quality of life of Cheshire residents.”

Other changes to the ordinance include the addition of the word “significant” to items B and D on the list of things that can be considered blight. The list now consists of “multiple missing, broken, or boarded up windows or doors; significantly damaged or missing siding; collapsing or missing walls, roofing materials or flooring; exterior walls which contain holes, breaks, significant loose or rotting materials.”

The committee also added a section on shrubs and greenery to allow for pollinator pathways and native plants.

“Shrubs, hedges, plants, weeds, or any other vegetation that has been left to grow in an unkempt manner that are covering or blocking means of egress or access to any building or that are blocking, interfering with, or otherwise obstructing any sightline, road sign, or emergency access to or at the property, when viewed from any property line,” it reads.

Exemptions to this are “maintained gardens, flower beds, xeriscape landscaping as a part of the landscape design or naturalized areas provided that they do not cover or block means of egress or access.”

While multiple members of the public expressed support for the ordinance, resident Eric Gillis was the first to outline concerns.

“I understand the intent of this ordinance, but it is not well translated here in the document,” he said. “There is too much left to interpretation regarding what the Blight Prevention Officer can declare as blight. If we don’t have any boundaries on what they can and cannot (declare) as blight, I am afraid of where we go from here.”

Gillis said that the blight prevention officer, who is responsible for issuing written violations of the ordinance, would be an unelected position in town and therefore not necessarily looking out for the public’s best interest.

“We have sort of invented the hammer, just to look for the nail,” he added. 

Peter Jurgensen, who is in support of the ordinance, asked the council what would happen if a supposed blighted property is left abandoned, without anyone to respond to the written citation. 

“We do have ways of finding people,” Town Attorney Jeffery Donofrio responded. “Skip trace, land owner databases, if its bank-owned we can usually find someone who owns the property. If there is no cooperation at all then we can issue a lien on the property ... there is a whole process for this.”

Resident Daniel Bennett suggested that the blight ordinance might cause more issues than it addresses. 

“If the blight enforcement officer has a bone to pick with someone, there is no boundary keeping them from going after someone,” he said. “What is blight to someone might not be blight to someone else.”

Chesprocott Health Director Maura Esposito, who was in the audience, approached the podium to explain her role in addressing blighted properties, and why this ordinance might be necessary. 

“I usually go with the fire marshal on the calls for the ‘unsafe premises’ and sometimes we have to provide a lot of help to the individual living in that unsightly property,” she said. “There is usually a reason why that property has gotten to where it is, and we try to provide assistance to those who need it.”

As an example, mention was made of a 2014 incident where a Cheshire woman was killed after her home had collapsed on top of her partly because of excess clutter. 

“This is about the health and safety of our residents and should not be used as a tool for neighbor against neighbor,” added Town Councilor Tim Slocum, who led the meeting in Chairman Rob Oris’ absence. “We will not be taking any vote on this tonight in order to be able to listen to everyone’s concerns.”

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