City moving to register vacant homes, businesses
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
Darlington City Council is moving forward on a plan that would require the owners of all vacant homes and vacant commercial buildings in the city limits to register their properties with the city and pay a yearly fee that eventually could go as high as $3,000. During its May 4 meeting, council gave initial approval to the plan. One more “yes” vote, which could be taken as early as next month, would be needed before it could become law. If council gives its final OK, the city likely would allow a “grace period” of 6 to 12 months before the ordinance would take effect, officials said. Council intends the ordinance to be a way of giving owners a reason to do something with their vacant, and in some cases decrepit, properties. Officials estimate there are 100 to 125 vacant commercial and residential properties in Darlington. “The city of Darlington has buildings that have been, and I will use the word, ‘kidnapped,’” Mayor Curtis Boyd told council. “There are buildings sitting beside another building, adjacent to it, right beside it, that you can’t get in, and it’s been vacant for years.” “The owners won’t talk to you,” Boyd continued. “The owners don’t want to sell it for whatever particular reason. The fire marshal, the codes department, cannot enter that building. Is the building good? Is it in bad shape? Could it catch on fire? It makes our city look bad, because when people come to our town, a (single) vacant building is OK. But lots of vacant buildings start making us look like we’re a ghost town.” “This ordinance is not so that we can buy people out at a cheap rate,” Boyd told council. “We want people to fix their property up so that our town, your town, the city of Darlington, the beautiful city of Darlington, is maintained a beautiful city. … We’re not here to collect fines and fees on people. … Most people don’t want to pay anything extra. So you have to do something to try to get their attention.” Here’s an overview of the way the ordinance would work: Properties unoccupied for more than 30 days would be considered vacant. The ordinance also would apply to homes that are vacant because they’re up for sale, said city planner Lisa Chalian-Rock. It would not apply to “snowbirds,” residents who depart for long vacations or who usually live elsewhere “for a specific time period and have the intent to return.” The ordinance would not be retroactive, Rock said; the city would not consider how long a home or business has been vacant in the past. “The clock starts from zero” once the ordinance is passed and becomes effective, she said. A “vacant” home or business would have to be registered with the city within a month. A “property plan” would be worked out, addressing maintenance issues, repairs and the like, and in extreme cases, plans for demolition of the property. Vacant buildings, the ordinance says, would have to be “maintained and kept” so that “they appear to be occupied.” Hazardous materials, or materials that could catch fire, would have to be removed. Electrical wiring, outlets, fixtures, etc., that don’t meet building codes would have to be repaired. City officials might require the owner to cut off utilities in some cases. The owner would have to remove “abandoned and junk vehicles” from the property. “Diseased, dead or hazardous trees” would have to be removed. Graffiti would have to be removed. Any “garbage, refuse, rubbish” would have to be removed from the property. Mowing would be required to keep grass/weeds no more than 6 inches. Annual registration fees would vary depending on condition of the property and on how long the property has been vacant, starting from the effective date of the ordinance. For residences or commercial properties vacant up to a year, the initial registration fee would be $400 to $500. For properties vacant one to three years, the fee would be $1,000 a year. For properties vacant more than three years, the fee would rise to $3,000 a year. “We don’t believe that all citizens should pay for one person’s neglect,” Rock told council. “… We want to have a safe community for our residents.” Other S.C. cities, including Sumter and Columbia, use a similar plan. “The whole concept is making sure that people are taking care of what they have,” Rock said. “… It’s a small thing, but a lot of small things add up.” In a later interview with the News & Press, Rock said: “There’s an issue with people leaving homes vacant. People will come to council and say, ‘The house across the street from me, they had a fire 10 years ago, and they never fixed it, and it’s dilapidated, and it’s getting worse, or attracting animals, or criminals, or trespassers.’” It comes down to creating safety hazards, Rock said. “We’ve seen that a lot, unfortunately,” she said. The ordinance, assuming it gets a final OK, should “provide the incentive for the folks to do something, to not just be in a holding pattern.” In other business during council’s May 4 meeting, Recreation Director Lee Andrews told council that the city had received 12 responses from companies suggesting possible designs for the land off Harry Byrd Highway that the city plans to turn into a recreation complex. “It’s a really hard decision, because there is a bunch of good choices,” Andrews said. “ … We put it out there, and got back exactly what we wanted, which was a diverse group to give us ideas.” Andrews and council narrowed the options to a “short list” of four: Dan Dodd, PLA/Dodd Studios of Fort Mill; Keck & Wood, headquartered in Duluth, Ga.; Mozingo & Wallace Architects of Myrtle Beach; and SeamonWhiteside, with offices in several S.C. cities.