Westminster tells county officials it wants its own livability code

Housing law would give town enforcement power to improve rental sites

November 30, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Westminster's plan to develop and enforce its own livability code would enhance city properties and combat crime, city officials said at a meeting last night with the Carroll County commissioners.

Much of the meeting about concerns between the county and Westminster was spent discussing the proposed housing code.

The code would give Westminster enforcement power to use in conjunction with economic incentives to improve rental housing, said Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan and several members of the Common Council. It would allow the city to act on violations, including lead paint, inadequate plumbing and public nuisances.

"The general consensus of the council and myself is, it's probably likely we will adopt [a code] next year," Yowan said.

The city may draft a proposed housing code by early next year, the mayor said in an interview before the meeting.

Now, only the county has a housing code -- and only one officer to enforce it, he said. The existing city code deals only with the exterior of buildings and items such as garbage, high weeds and junked cars.

"I think it would improve the situation," Yowan said. "Our general view of the county's livability code is probably similar to that of other municipalities, and that is that it looks good on paper but it's not enforced very well."

Westminster Police Chief Roger G. Joneckis supported the proposed housing code and said it could help reduce crime.

"It was too easy for the drug dealers to come in and take over," Joneckis said, noting complaints from landlords and potential home buyers. "We need livability and we need to be able to move on it quickly or we'll be like Baltimore City. The criminals are traveling, and they're going to travel here.

"People coming up and taking over homes, running drug operations out of the homes. People don't want to live there," he said.

Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works, said the livability code began as a state mandate in 1988. "You did it because you had to do it," he told the commissioners.

"The problem is not with the standards, but the enforcement mechanism," said Beyard.

Under Westminster's current code, if a property owner has high grass or accumulations of trash and doesn't respond to a warning letter, the city can correct the situation and impose a lien on the property for repayment. It has done so seven times in five years.

Violations such as untended lawns and heaps of trash "make neighbors very irate," Beyard said.

Ralph E. Green, who heads the county department of permits, inspections and review, said penalties under the county's code range from $500 to three years in jail, but owners often are given time to comply. That and the shortage of staff make the county approach one of trying to win compliance while the city wants to act quickly to get the undesirables out.

Green cautioned, too, that the county needs to keep affordable housing, and said he understands that judges can't justify condemning a property for a violation that might cost $300 or $400 to correct.

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