Fighting Blight in Westminster

January 24, 1995

The Westminster City Council's decision to give itself the power to condemn unsafe or hazardous buildings is a step in the right direction, despite the reservations of those who fear further encroachment of government on the rights of private property ownership.

The unanimous council vote gives the city a chance to address seriously deteriorated and dilapidated buildings that degrade the community but that have been ignored by Carroll County health and inspection agencies. It is the kind of civic leverage against irresponsible property owners that is needed to force clean-up and renovation of obvious urban blight.

The issue arose last year when residents of Charles Street complained of deteriorating, boarded-up houses that presented health and safety hazards to their neighborhood. In the absence of citations from health or building permit agencies, the city government stood powerless to deal with the problem.

Certainly, the power assumed by the city of Westminster should be exercised with extreme caution. Safeguards built into the ordinance will prevent abuses of power; the City Council and the Historic District Commission will review any case that involves court-ordered demolition. No building owner should be subjected to political or personal harassment through the law.

The right of condemnation does not mean that the city will automatically grab the property and knock it down. Property owners will have ample opportunity to make amends and reclaim their buildings.

As for the voiced concerns that historic structures could be demolished by city fiat, they are misplaced. If a building has true historic value, it should be preserved and maintained. The city can take that protective action if a recalcitrant landlord refuses to do so.

City officials hope that the new law will prod county agencies to more vigorously pursue citizen complaints against rundown properties, taking action before any condemnation process begins. They have been frustrated repeatedly by county inaction in such cases. More important, they hope this condemnation power will force owners of derelict buildings to act responsibly and clean up their bad neighbor act.

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