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City looks to tackle nuisance, blight

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Springfield City Council and its Building Development Services department plan to strengthen policies addressing blighted and nuisance properties this year.

As BDS Director Dwayne Shmel put it at a council luncheon this month, there’s a new sheriff in town.

“Word is getting out,” said Shmel, who joined the city about a year ago. “If you don’t clean it up, I will. You’re going to pay for it either way.”

He said a third of his 37-person staff is devoted to growth and development, through permitting, plan reviews and commercial inspection, and the rest cover nuisance abatement. The workers have a heavy load, according to Shmel. Last year, the department completed 4,594 building inspections, most of those by three inspectors.

“That’s a lot of inspections. I’m very proud of my team,” he said.

Shmel said the city received 570 service requests regarding blighted buildings in 2020 and 536 in 2021. Of these, 35% turned out to fit the city’s definition of blight in 2020, but 71% were found to meet the blight definition in 2021.

“The community is starting to get educated. They’re starting to understand what a dangerous and blighted building really looks like,” he said.

The city had only one approved contractor to respond to dangerous and blighted buildings in 2021, but now it has three, Shmel said.

“That part is a very big deal,” said City Manager Jason Gage, noting that to have more than one contractor allows for improved quality, price and availability of service.

But Shmel said his office does not want to rely on contractors to remove blight conditions.

“We want the owner of the property to clean it up themselves. We want them to take responsibility for their property,” he said.

Owner responsibility appears to be happening, according to numbers Shmel presented. The city received 2,460 nuisance reports in 2020 and 3,380 in 2021. Property owners handled the majority of cleanup work, but the city cleaned up 276 properties in 2020 and 211 in 2021.

Council expressed concern about repeat offenders.

Councilperson Richard Ollis asked, “Are we tracking repeat offenders? In other words, if we’re constantly having to go out to the same address, the same property owner to deal with it, are we tracking that?”

Shmel said there is little in city code to allow serial violators to be treated any differently from first-time offenders, but he would like to see that added, as it could shorten the process of addressing violations.

“We do have a repeat offender administrator fee ordinance as it relates to weeds,” Gage said. “I didn’t see it as I was reviewing for other types of nuisances.”

Councilperson Andrew Lear questioned whether the city could track owners of multiple addresses who have violations at more than one location.

“That I think is also an issue, where they have multiple properties and are a bad actor,” he said.

Shmel said there is institutional knowledge on his staff when certain names come up.

“We know that person; we know that property,” he said. “I do want to communicate out to the most egregious and the repeat offenders that I have zero tolerance. … If you don’t abate it, we will.”

Dangerous properties ultimately may have to be torn down if abatement requirements are not met, according to Shmel.

“I hate to tear down buildings. I’m an architect; I’m supposed to build things,” he said. “We’ll tear them down if we have to, if they meet the ordinances, but it’s sobering to see.”

Mayor Ken McClure said the problem is a significant one.

“What today has shown us is the magnitude of the problem and still what we need to address,” he said. “We want to do this the right way to make sure the community is well served and safe and protected. We want to continue to be moving on what we need to do and what we can do to help you address those issues.”

Ollis said he would like to see another session where Shmel offered recommendations on how to address the impact of blighted and nuisance properties.

“There are repeat offenders that we’re just chasing our tail with,” he said.

He added, “This is important work, and we have to get our arms around it or we’re going to lose some of these neighborhoods.”

Shmel’s department performed what he called a nuisance sweep in the summer. Staff drove by 18,204 parcels north of Chestnut Expressway, and they found 3,305 properties in violation of nuisance ordinances, he said.

In 2022, a similar sweep will be conducted in the rest of the city.

Shmel pointed out that the sweep was conducted by inspectors, so the violations found were all credible ones – meaning that 18.2% of all properties north of Chestnut Expressway are in violation of the city’s nuisance ordinance.

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