Halifax selectmen met Tuesday night with a dozen citizens who want something done about the abandoned and run down houses in town.
Town Administrator Charlie Seelig told the board that in response to several inquiries and reports of problems, especially in the former cottage area of West Monponsett pond, there is little that the town can do with these half dozen or so properties that have been abandoned.
Seelig told selectmen and the citizens that the Treasurer/Collector has identified those properties whose real estate taxes have not been paid, and has begun foreclosure on them. What the town will do with the properties, once the foreclosure for taxes due has been accomplished, remains to be seen.
The citizens are concerned not only for the attractive nuisance of the properties, the fire hazard, and the potential for rodent infestation, they are also concerned that the falling down houses are bringing down the property values of their homes.
One resident noted that he has owned his home for six years, and his valuation is less than when he bought it, due to the several rundown abandoned properties in his neighborhood. But his real estate taxes continued to go up, he said. Residents said they want something done to protect their neighborhoods from further decay due to the abandoned homes blight.
Seelig said that there are two situations in the mix right now – those houses that have been deserted and are run down and the real estate taxes have not been paid, and those houses that are run down with no one living in them but the taxes are paid.
For those whose taxes are not paid, town foreclosure is the answer, then what to do once the town takes possession of these parcels is unsure. Seelig said that he could not see town meeting voting the funds to tear down the houses, take out the oil tanks and the foundations, only to be left with a non-conforming lot that could not be built on and is of value only to an abutter to increase the size of their lot.
As an immediate fix of the problem of a house open to the elements, Seelig told the group that any citizen could report an open building and selectmen could ask the finance committee for an immediate appropriation to board up the house to prevent people and animals from entering it. Other than that, there is nothing in the by-laws to deal with abandoned homes.
For those properties whose taxes are paid but the premises are left in disrepair, the town could, with a new by-law, fine a property owner until he brings the property up to code. Seelig said that he would seek out selectmen’s wishes on the matter, to write a new by-law, which would need a 2/3 majority vote to pass. Seelig also told the group that they themselves could submit a bylaw for annual town meeting approval in May with a 10-taxpayer petition submitted to selectmen before the deadline for such submissions sometime in April. In the event that the citizens would like to have their article put on a special town meeting warrant, it would take 100 signatures to have their by-law included on the warrant.
Properties that are derelict and run down, but not abandoned, may rebuild, Selectman Tom Millias told the group; they can request a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Millias, a former building inspector for the Town of Halifax, explained that once a building is declared abandoned, it can no longer qualify for “grandfathering” in a new building permit on a non-conforming lot.
Selectmen assured the group that they have heard the concerns and are sympathetic with them, and will work to find a solution to the problem.
Seelig said he has researched the 351 cities and towns to see if any have a bylaw dealing with keeping buildings and grounds to a certain minimal level, and did not find any. Even if the town does enact a by-law, who makes the decision? Is it appealable?
And, selectmen noted, even if a by-law is enacted, it takes time for the process to unfold. Brockton and Longmeadow have each received substantial grant monies to help with the abandoned homes and Seelig said he would watch for such grants to see what help is available.