Downtown property owners air feelings on ‘derelict’ ordinance

Published 10:11 am Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Several property owners spoke against the City of Franklin’s proposed “derelict property” ordinance during a work session held one hour prior to its city council meeting on Monday.

The draft ordinance, which had been discussed at several council meetings over the past few months, would both incentivize and compel owners of properties deemed derelict to either renovate or demolish them. According to the draft, three criteria must be met for a property to be considered derelict. It must be vacant for a continuous period of at least six months, it must possibly endanger the public’s health, safety or welfare, and it must not be connected to electric service from a utility service provider or water or sewer service.

Should a house or commercial structure be deemed derelict, the proposed ordinance would require the city to notify the owner and require the owner to submit to the city a plan, within 90 days of notice, to demolish or renovate the structure. A property owner whose structure meets the aforementioned criteria would also be allowed to request that the city deem the property derelict in order to claim the incentives offered in the ordinance.

The proposed ordinance would offer expedited demolition permits and a full refund of the cost of said permits if demolition is completed within 90 days of the permit’s issuance, plus the abatement of real estate taxes in an amount equal to the cost of demolition for at lease seven years in accordance with state code section 15.2-907.1(8.) Expedited and refunded building permits and real estate tax abatements equal to the cost of renovation may also be available to those who wish to pursue repairs.

First to speak during the work session was Lee Barnes, who owns property on North High Street and West Second Avenue. Barnes expressed concerns that the passing of the ordinance would further complicate his plans to renovate his properties, and said he had already encountered difficulties with the city’s zoning laws.

“There is a need for affordable housing in our communities… we bought these properties and we fixed them up, but I have a million dollar package in financing that was killed because I was told [by the city] I was not allowed to use 104 N. High St. as a duplex,” he said. “It was built as a duplex.”

Next to speak was Bobby Tyler, who said that there were only four things you could do with a derelict building.

“You can repair it, you can do nothing, you can secure the building and wait for better economic conditions, or you can tear it down,” he said. “If the city elects to do option four and tear it down, all other options are remitted.

“There is a difference between a derelict building and a blighted building. A blighted building affects public health and welfare, a derelict building may or may not. As a property owner, I am continuing to wait for better economic times.”

He added that one of the properties Barnes had mentioned, a group of four two-story row houses located at 500 W. Second Ave., was once featured in the National Register of Historic Places as the only example of 19th century row housing in the district, and an architectural style that is rarely found in cities as small as Franklin.

Next to speak was Jennifer Bernocco, who said she had been planning to restore a house in Franklin under the city’s historic tax credit program that had been sitting empty for six years.

“But I don’t feel like I can if you’re threatening to take the properties down around it,” she said, suggesting that the city instead get its historic district involved in revitalizing properties.

She also suggested that instead of pursuing a derelict property ordinance, the city look into adjusting its policy on the auction of properties with back taxes to be more like Richmond. She said Richmond offers a special warranty deed on properties sold at auction that mandates the new owner must repair the property within a two-year period. If the owner fails to do so, ownership of the property reverts to the city.

Last to speak was Dan Howe, executive director of the Downtown Franklin Association, who asked if this ordinance or another already on the books could work for property owners whose structures haven’t been deemed derelict, so that they could still get some type of tax abatement for making improvements.

Once all citizens had made their comments, the council discussed what had been said. Mayor Frank Rabil, responding to Howe, said the city does currently have tax abatement offers for people seeking to renovate a non-derelict property but that few people had taken advantage of those incentives to date.

Councilman Linwood Johnson said he agreed with Tyler that property owners sometimes needed to wait for better economic conditions to renovate their properties.

“The state itself is holding off on a few things until things get settle with the federal government,” he said. “If they’re holding off, I think we can do the same.”

The matter will be put to a final discussion and vote during the council’s next meeting on Jan. 22.