State law to be used in renewal efforts

City's officials to target negligent landlords on Pennsylvania Avenue


July 30, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Westminster officials plan to tap a decade-old state nuisance law to clean up a troubled neighborhood by cracking down on landlords who allow their properties to foster drug trafficking.

The law - which ultimately would allow the city to "padlock" such structures - provides Westminster with an immediate tool in the revitalization of the Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood. Crime, drug trafficking, housing code violations and vandalism have vexed the area in recent years.

A group of government officials, social service agencies, residents and a landlord formed in the spring to devise a plan to rehabilitate the neighborhood, a several-block area of older homes, apartment buildings and few businesses on the city's west side that borders McDaniel College, formerly known as Western Maryland College.

"It's a sanction that could have real teeth," Thomas B. Beyard, Westminster's director of planning and public works, said about the state's nuisance-abatement law. Beyard is a member of the group, the Lower Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative.

The state law gives communities and neighborhood groups legal avenues - such as warnings, orders to vacate and fines - to pursue against negligent landlords whose properties are used for drug activity. It also gives the city the authority to raze troublesome properties.

Greater responsibility

City officials said the law will make negligent or absentee landlords more responsible for what goes on at their properties - many of the homes along Pennsylvania Avenue have been turned into boarding houses. Nearly half the growing city's housing is rental units.

"If anything has become a realization during this process with Pennsylvania Avenue is that when we reach into the toolbox, certain things aren't there - the ability to see inside properties and really come down hard on habitual problem landlords," Beyard said.

Westminster officials were discussing the creation of a city law to shut down buildings where drug activity thrives when Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes mentioned the state law during a recent meeting with the Lower Pennsylvania group.

"I wasn't even aware it existed," said Scott Jeznach, the city's code enforcement officer. "We always had the local code for unsafe properties. We're not part of [a] system that is informed of state codes."

Panel recommendations

The 40-member committee has developed several recommendations, including crime prevention initiatives, tax incentives for landlords who repair properties and ridding the area of problem houses, but nothing has been formalized.

Jeznach said it would have been difficult for the city to draft an effective law because of opposition from landlords.

"But this one is on the books already," Jeznach said. "It is a potential tool for the future."

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