What do Detroit and Saratoga Springs have in common? Answer: both are searching for a way to eliminate vacant properties.
Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Public Safety Christian Mathiesen is hoping to tackle the issue of vacant buildings in the city. He pegs the number of vacant businesses and private residences at 50. They are scattered throughout the city, he said, and some have sat empty for years.
“These buildings are continuing to deteriorate,” Mathiesen said. “This has an effect on neighborhoods and on property values in the area.”
The commissioner is pitching an “incentive” to get owners to either develop their properties or sell them so they can be utilized. A new ordinance would be added to the City Code that would clear the way for a cataloguing of vacant structures. Code enforcement officers would then inspect those buildings, and owners of a vacant structure would be assessed an annual “registration fee” of $100, which would increase to $200 after the first year.
“They have to be made safe,” Mathiesen said. “We need to make sure vagrants can’t get into the buildings.”
Under the proposal, which will be up for a public hearing at a Tuesday, Feb. 5, City Council meeting, a vacant building is defined as one that “is not occupied in any way.” The law would also define as vacant a building that’s been offered up for sale for more than 180 days, is pending foreclosure or is being demolished or is under construction without a proper permit.
Mathiesen said depending on how the public hearing goes, the City Council might vote on the proposal that night. He said that the Southwest Neighborhood Association, which is centered around the Geyser Road area, has been very interested in an ordinance of this sort for quite a while. That area includes socialite Mary Lou Whitney’s house, which is unoccupied for a good part of the year.
“We’re not concerned about her house,” joked Mathiesen. “Her house is not on the list.”
Mathiesen said once the ordinance is passed, building owners would be required to register their vacant buildings. The list of vacant properties was determined by several different sources, including people calling his office complaining of a vacant building.
“Neighbors are an important resource in terms of complaints about buildings that are deteriorating and vacant,” he said. “If we find that those people have not registered the buildings properly, they’re in big trouble.”
Mathiesen said if a vacant building owner fails to comply with the proposed code, he or she would have to appear in court and be subject to a penalty. He added he would like to see a greater gradual increase in the fee in order to discourage buildings being left unoccupied year after year.
“We want to make it so unprofitable for them to leave a building empty, that they just wouldn’t do that,” he said.
Mathiesen said the ultimate goal is to bring the number of vacant properties down to zero.
“We want turnover, we want buildings redeveloped,” he said. “The buildings that are just sitting and deteriorating and not adding to the character of the neighborhood, that becomes a problem. We do think that something like this will be helpful.”
He said that even though code enforcement officers have some very specific guidelines that they impose on the owners to try to preserve the buildings, there’s only so much the officers can do.
“This goes back to the character of a neighborhood,” said Mathiesen. “The character of a neighborhood is certainly diminished by buildings that are sitting empty.”