Monday, May 31, 2010


     ALMOST ANYWHERE, USA – One of the problems with a graying, older suburbia, which is the lower New York State area in which I live, is that often land and building neglect have arrived over the decades. The same is true of urban sections of this nation, surely, and rural and other regions, though untidiness certainly seems dependent on the people who live in a particular place. Some, bless them, always take care of their property, no matter how little money they have. Others are, well, simply “les cochons,” a much nicer, French way of saying “pigs.”

If I had a magic wand, I would compel communities that have property maintenance laws to enforce them, and make those that do not enact such ordinance. It is in the general public interest to protect property values.
Many towns and villages declare, as my local Orangetown community notes in its “Chapter 24c, Property Maintenance Code,” that “Properties which are not adequately maintained and repaired may serve as an attractive nuisance …  (they) tend to … detract from the appearance of adjoining properties, which may lead to the progressive deterioration of a neighborhood.” Absolutely, we all have seen that happen.
     Such law is fine on paper, but what happens when a homeowner keeps unregistered junk cars in his driveway, when someone leaves litter on his land, when trash and recycling containers are not removed after pickup, when fences are falling down, when gutters are falling off roofs, when sidewalks are not cleared of snow or are hazardous because tree roots have pushed up the slabs? And what about shopping centers where debris is not picked up, the parking lots are shabby and the building facades rundown?
These are real conditions in most communities, and it seems the onus is on neighbors to be the bad guy and make a formal complaint. Instead, the municipality should be noting the neglect and notifying property owners to correct.
One way to improve property appearance is by certificate of occupancy renewal whenever a home or business is offered for sale. The community sends out an inspector after a small fee is paid to cover that, and neglect such as poor sidewalks and yard litter are corrected before the property can be sold.
Neglected property not being sold should be cited.  We realize building inspectors are busy enough, but while they are in their cars going to their jobs, they can jot down addresses. So can police on routine patrol. For that matter, so can the mayor, the town supervisor, the trustees, council people, any concerned citizen. We all have a financial and quality-of-life stake in how our villages and towns look.
If owners do not correct the neglect, the municipalities can step in and do the work, adding the tab to the annual tax bill. However, the property owner cannot afford repairs because of illness, job loss, pending foreclosure, etc., perhaps community service organizations can lend a hand and take on these properties as projects.
 The point is to clean up blighted properties and to enforce the law, not just have it on the books. As James Dean, Orangetown highway superintendent, said recently about his campaign to prevent graffiti from spreading to the point of blight, “If you have a building with a broken window, it seems to attract more people to break more windows.” Property neglect can mushroom.

Think of your mother, who I hope told you to wash your hands before dinner, to pick up your toys, to not track mud into your house. Well, communities are homes held in common. There is no room for “les cochons” to spoil it for the rest of us.

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