Legislators on both sides of the political aisle say they agree that blight is a scourge on Connecticut’s municipalities – especially on downtowns – but recent votes in the state legislature showed a sharp split between the parties on how they intend to address the problem.
Most Democrats favored House Bill 6892, ‘An Act Concerning Municipal Blight Ordinances and the Fine for Littering,’ arguing that the provisions expanding the number of communities eligible to place abandoned and blighted properties into receivership will help smaller cities and towns better address blight issues.
The bill reduced the threshold of eligibility for towns from 35,000 to 15,000 residents.
The bill also increased the maximum daily penalties for blight from $100 to $1,000 for repeat offenders in a 12-month period and the maximum state littering fine from $199 to $500.
But GOP members said that while they are all for getting rid of blighted properties, the higher penalty was too punitive and they could not support it.
“You are going from $100 to $1,000,” said State Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, who offered a compromise bill where the highest levels of fines would be $250. That proposal failed.
Fazio said he supports the concept of the bill and said the provisions aimed at remediating blight were a step in the right direction. But, he said, he voted against the measure because, “I just thought the fines were too punitive. You could end up fining people hundreds of thousands of dollars. I worry that we are giving the government too much power to potentially harm property owners. But, I do, though, think that blight ordinances are important.”
Democrats say that even one or two blighted buildings in a downtown can cause headaches for municipal leaders and can be the reason why businesses will not invest in an area and people will not rent or buy homes.
“My interest is from a ‘Main Street perspective,”’ said State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-Fairfield, who is co-chairperson for the Connecticut Main Street Working Group, which partnered with the nonprofit Connecticut Main Street Center. The center’s goal is help towns revitalize their historic commercial districts.
Leeper and other legislators worked closely with the Connecticut Main Street Center in supporting House Bill 6892. Leeper is one of nine co-sponsors of the legislation. The bill passed the State Senate 24-12 along party lines with Democrats supporting it and 108-43 in the House, also primarily along party lines. Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to sign off on the anti-blight measure soon. The bill would become law effective Oct. 1.
The working group heard from several communities with fewer than 35,000 residents, where local officials said their hands were tied by the way the law was originally written — most notably Torrington and New London, Leeper told CT Examiner.
New London, which has a few blighted buildings in its downtown, has a population of about 28,000. Torrington’s population is just over or under the 35,000 threshold — the 2021 census puts it at 35,357. A lawsuit in Torrington is currently pending regarding whether to put Yankee Pedlar Inn on Main Street in receivership. The inn is shuttered and, Leeper said, is deteriorating and a blight on downtown Torrington.
“We were really happy to the lower the population threshold to more clearly define what blight is within the process and to increase the fines so there is a clear path to receivership,” Leeper said.”Both Torrington and New London felt like their entire economic development of their downtown would be held back because of blighted properties.”
Michelle McCabe, executive director of the Hartford-based Connecticut Main Street Center, told CT Examiner that blighted properties on Main Streets are “an enormous drag on economic vitality and even on community morale.”
McCabe said that Torrington’s Yankee Pedlar Inn “takes up a full city block and is a fire hazard now because it’s been abandoned for so long.”
House Rep. and Deputy Majority Leader Christine Conley, D-Groton, said the receivership part of the bill “is another tool in the toolbox.”
Republican legislators, like Fazio, said they supported many aspects of the bill, but could not vote for it, in the end, given to the steep fines.
But State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, called it “a terrible bill,” warning that the lower population threshold could make farms a target of the new statute.
“I represent eight towns covering 200 square miles and we have a lot of farms in that area,” Dubitsky told CT Examiner. “Every town has its own laws.”
Dubitsky said that farms might have unregistered vehicles, equipment in front and tall grass that could be construed as blight by some definitions.
“Section after section has provisions worse than the others,” Dubitsky said. “There are more than 100 ZEOs [zoning enforcement officers] with different views on what farming and blight is. I don’t know what the purpose is other than to be punitive.”
Some city leaders echoed the frustration that there was not one uniform blight law from municipality to municipality.
“[Blight statutes] change from one municipality to another; that is one of the biggest obstacles. We have a definition, Waterbury has a definition, Willimantic has a definition,” said Sergio Lupo, New Britain’s long-time Director of Health, Licenses, Permits and Inspections. “I think the state should have a clear language. There should be a uniform definition or property maintenance code where it is clearly defined at the state level.”
Lupo said New Britain’s definition of blight is broad and factors in the cosmetic appearance of a structure, issues like tall grass, rodent infestation, an accumulation of tires and unregistered abandoned vehicles on a property.
He said the city dealt with about 140 housing complaints in May, with more than half related to blight.
Leeper pushed back on Republican opposition to the new law.
“I think there was some misinformation that this [statute] could be used basically to take over properties that people deemed ugly,” Leeper said. “But, that [properties deemed ugly] doesn’t meet the threshold for what is defined as blighted [in a particular community] and abandoned property. There is a process that needs to be followed. In order to put a property in receivership it has to not only be blighted but have the proper number of notices of blight. You just can’t one day come take over a property. This is not a fast process. But [statute] does give municipalities the tools for trying to bring these abandoned and blighted properties back into productive use.”