A vacant home registration ordinance is coming to Peachtree City, according to discussions among City Council members Thursday night. But questions about fees and time limits postponed a final vote until at least the May 20 meeting.
Responding to complaints about the declining state of some of the 30 to 40 houses currently vacant in Peachtree City, Mayor Don Haddix said, “A lot of people say we need to do something about this.”
That something would require property owners to register with the city any home that had been vacant for a period of time yet to be determined, but in any case not more than six months.
The ordinance also would apply to vacant commercial structures, although there are far fewer of them than vacant houses, council members noted.
The property owner would pay a fee and file a written maintenance plan for the vacant property. The city housing inspector will maintain a database of vacant structures and conduct periodic inspections, the ordinance proposes.
Officials say the rule is intended to encourage owners to cooperate with the city on vacant properties. “It’s not meant to intimidate property owners or to balance the budget,” said Interim Community Development Director David Rast.
The ordinance also provides fines for failure to comply of up to $500 a day, an amount questioned by Councilman Eric Imker. “A hundred dollars a day is sufficient to get somebody’s attention,” Imker said.
Imker also objected to the six months waiting period for owner compliance after the city declares a home vacant. He suggested a much shorter period, maybe 60 to 90 days at most.
Three exceptions to the vacant house rule would be:
• A vacant structure being actively marketed for sale or lease for less than 12 months by a licensed real estate broker or an owner who is regularly advertising the property.
• A vacant structure that is under contract for sale or lease for less than 12 months.
• A vacant structure that has a city building permit issued for remodeling or repair.
Rast will come back to the council May 20 with the revisions to the proposed ordinance.
Rast told the council at the regular Thursday night meeting that city staff had looked at several ordinances in other areas to see how others had approached the problem of maintaining standards on vacated housing.
“This is a great addition to the code of ordinances,” Rast said. “It gives us teeth to require owners to maintain their property.”
The idea is for the city to keep track of vacant homes for safety purposes and also to help protect the property values of nearby homeowners, city officials have said.
The fire and police departments would be told about the vacant homes, and city staff would also be empowered to make inspections when necessary to insure the property isn’t taken over by vagrants, Rast said of the proposed rule.
The ordinance suggested by city staff would require a $200 registration fee and for additional inspection fees, with the first one being $50, the second $75 and $100 for each additional inspection.
The ordinance also empowers the city to declare an unregistered vacant home as being vacant.
Property owners who fail to provide required information, provide false information, or fail to act on a requirement under the ordinance would face a fee of up to $500 a day, according to the staff proposal. That may be revised downward when the ordinance comes back before council.
Council members wanted more detail about the sequence of events proceeding from a city determination that a property is vacant.
If the owner doesn’t tell the city about the vacancy, Rast said, the city code enforcement officer will inspect the property during routine “drive-bys” and enter the property on the city database as being vacant.
The clock starts running then, as the city mails a notice to the last known property owner, notifying the owner of the requirement to register the property within a set period — yet to be determined — and to file a written maintenance plan for the property with the city, according to discussions before the council Thursday night.
There will be increasing fees for official inspections to see if the owner is maintaining the property to city standards.
If an owner fails to register the property after city notification, pay the fee and file the maintenance plan, then the city will have the power to fine the owner for daily violations, up to $500 per day.
Rast said the fines would not necessarily start with the maximum amount. “The fine is a last resort,” Rast said, but said he considered the upper limit “appropriate” and consistent with other fines for violations of city ordinances.
Councilwoman Vanessa Fleisch wondered if the inspections would primarily be outside or inside.
Rast responded that most inspections would be from outside — an inspector waking around the front and back yards looking for broken windows, fouled swimming pools, non-working door locks and any evidence of vandalism.
He noted that in some cases the inspector would have to go inside the structure — via a warrant, if necessary — for things like broken water pipes and signs of illegal squatters using the house.
One resident said the proposed $200 initial registration fee was “excessive” and worried about how picky the city inspector could get about what constituted acceptable maintenance on the property.
“Will the city require us to repaint a house” to match the neighborhood, asked Clell Lambert of Peninsula Drive in Peachtree City. “This could be carried to an extreme.”
Lambert also said the real estate sale exemption was too short, given the difficulties of selling houses in today’s market.
Councilman Doug Sturbaum suggested the council send the proposed ordinance back to staff for more revisions that likely will include a lower fee schedule coupled with a shorter time period for owner compliance.
That motion passed 5-to-0, with the revisions expected back before the council at the May 20 meeting.
In other business, the council voted unanimously to impose a two-month moratorium on all new requests for cellphone towers and antennas.
Staff had asked for the breather to allow time to draw up new rules, meet with interested parties and hold public hearings on any changes.
The moratorium will be lifted no later than July 15.
The council also approved an agreement that would allow for the creation of a disc (frisbee) golf club that would help maintain the city’s course directly across Willowbend Road from City Hall.
The club wants to raise money by offering memberships and sponsorships while also hosting small local tournaments at first.
The club’s future goal is to build an 18-hole course somewhere in the city to enable the recruitment of state-level tournaments, according to a memo from city recreation staff.
— With additional reporting by John Munford.