City readies vacant property registry

Christina Shipley, Code Enforcement Officer for the City of Watertown. Julia Hopkins/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — City officials are putting the finishing touches on the city’s new vacant property registry and inspection program that goes into effect on Dec. 1.

The city’s Code Enforcement office will be handling the program that will require property owners to register their vacant properties and notify the city on what they plan to do with them.

Christine Shipley, a city building safety inspector, will be in charge of the program. For about a year, she’s been tracking down so-called “zombie properties” — those that owners have moved out of but the bank hasn’t foreclosed on yet — for the city.

City Manager Rick Finn said that it made sense for Ms. Shipley to handle the vacant property registration since she already looks for vacant properties now.

In recent years, city officials have been trying to figure out what to do about the city’s growing number of abandoned and deteriorating buildings.

In April, Mr. Finn proposed charging fees as a way to deal with vacant buildings that dot the city. He believes the new law will make owners accountable for their vacant buildings.

“Everyone has them,” Ms. Shipley said. “We’re not the only one. All communities have them.”

She just talked to Elmira officials about how that city established its vacant building registration program and how it works.

The Code Enforcement office has put a registration form together that will ask property owners about 10 questions.

“We want to know what is your intent,” she said.

The form will not become available until the new program begins.

As she has been doing for months, Ms. Shipley determines if a building is vacant by checking if the water and power have been turned off. She also talks to neighbors and state officials.

“Elmira told me to go by a case-by-case basis,” she said about figuring which buildings are occupied and which are not.

Like she does with the zombie program, Ms. Shipley will soon be able to use a computer tablet to record data of what she finds.

Properties that are for sale or that are in compliance would not be involved in the program. As long as there are no violations, the city would not go after those properties.

Under the registration program, the owner of a vacant building would pay a $50 fee upon registration no later than 30 days after it becomes vacant.

If the building remains vacant for more than 90 days, the city code enforcement office would conduct inspections on the property and the owner would be assessed a $750 fee to pay for them.

If the owner ignores the registration program, the owner would be assessed a $500 penalty and face possible prosecution in Watertown City Court.

By the Numbers

343 — Total number of suspected vacant properties

244 — Vacant properties inspected and found vacant

46 — Properties inspected and found to be occupied

40 — Properties found to be zombie properties

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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