Middletown property owners criticize new ‘heavy-handed’ city code on some downtown buildings

Despite the objections of nearly a dozen property owners Tuesday, Middletown City Council approved an ordinance to require owners of vacant buildings to register with the city to ensure upkeep and maintenance.

Council voted 4-1, with Councilman Steve Bohannon casting the “no” vote, saying there needed to be more collaboration with property owners with city staff and Downtown Middletown Inc. and working out any issues before being enacted. Bohannon cited the collaboration between local residential landlords and city officials to develop the chronic nuisance ordinance several years ago.

Bohannon, who owns investment property in the city, unsuccessfully moved to table the ordinance for additional review.

The new ordinance, which starts in 30 days, affects buildings and properties within the Urban Core Central zoning district that encompasses downtown Middletown. The ordinance expires in 10 years, but can be renewed. City officials said the ordinance is not targeting any building or property owner.

Officials are concerned that vacant buildings not properly maintained become hazards for first responders, attract vagrancy and hamper economic development efforts for the downtown area. The ordinance has been under development since 2016 by some downtown property owners and DMI and that there have been continuing discussions since 2013, said Dennis Vitori, a local businessman, property owner and DMI chairman.

He called the legislation “a tool to make downtown more vibrant and sustainable.”

The ordinance requires property owners to register their buildings, provide contact and insurance information, provide a plan for the property, and maintain the property to minimum standards. There are annual fees and penalties for non-compliant buildings and exemptions for fire damage, renovations or on the sales market.

Councilwoman Ami Vitori, the daughter of Dennis Vitori, said she did not want to “kick the can down the road” because this has been discussed for several years.

Councilman Joe Mulligan said he was ready to vote on the ordinance. He said it would be months before any property owner would be cited and fined for noncompliance.

Mayor Larry Mulligan said council can adjust the ordinance at a later date if changes are needed.

Property owner Perry Armstrong said he was unaware about the ordinance and had a lot of questions. He said the penalties are extreme and the ordinance was “vague” and “very subjective.”

Dan Tracy, another property owner, said the new ordinance duplicates some of the language that’s in chronic nuisance ordinance.

Rachel Lewitt, a downtown property owner and local real estate broker, told council she felt the ordinance was “heavy-handed and puts current and future property owners at risk.” She questioned why council would disrupt the free market and create unintended consequences. Lewitt said mandates discourage investment and public/private partnerships work better. More discussion was needed, she said.

On Wednesday, Lewitt said she was disappointed council didn’t table the ordinance for additional input to “build consensus on the front end.” Then she added she was “optimistic” the city will be collaborative and open to modifications that “yield positive results.”

Lewitt thinks there is a lot of common ground between the city and property owners that the ordinance with adjustments can protect property rights, individual business decisions and encourage redevelopment.

Bohannon told this news outlet Wednesday the issue remains very fluid and the ordinance can be modified at a later date. He said a group of property owners are getting together and review the ordinance so it can be tweaked. Bohannon said property owners are concerned about the occupancy percentage and would like to see that lowered.

Provisions of Middletown’s vacant buildings ordinance

  • Registration of the vacant property
  • Designation of a local owner or agent to contact
  • Submission of a plan for the property
  • Maintaining liability insurance
  • Maintaining minimum maintenance standards for building
  • Payment of annual fees, $200 for vacant residential structures; $400 for commercial structures.
  • Annual fee doubles annually up to five years
  • Exemptions for buildings in active renovation, suffering from fire damage or are for sale
  • Civil fines of $100 a day for each day the building is noncompliant
  • City has ability to abate and assess violating properties
  • 10-year sunset clause

SOURCE: City of Middletown

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