City will require registration of vacant homes, buildings
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
Darlington City Council last week gave final approval to a plan requiring the owners of all vacant homes and vacant commercial buildings in the city limits to register their properties and pay an annual fee that eventually might go as high as $3,000 in some cases. Council scheduled a public hearing on the plan right before the vote June 8, but no one signed up to speak, and officials said no one had sent letters or e-mails opposing the ordinance. One audience member did ask, “What are you trying to do, force people to sell that property?” “We’re trying to get people to maintain the property,” replied city planner Lisa Chalian-Rock. “ … We’re just trying to make sure that it’s safe for everybody else. We’re trying to protect the community at large.” Added Mayor Curtis Boyd: “We want Darlington to look good, and we’re going to protect Darlington. But we’ve got lots of buildings that we can’t get in, that we’re not allowed to get in. I tore one of them down on Broad Street that should have been torn down years ago. … To move Darlington forward and make sure it’s clean, this is the ordinance that has to be passed.” At last month’s council meeting, Boyd defended the plan in detail: “The city of Darlington has buildings that have been, and I will use the word, ‘kidnapped.’ 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 added in his comments last month. “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.” The city likely will allow a “grace period” of 6 to 12 months before the ordinance takes effect, officials have said. Officials estimate there are 100 to 125 vacant commercial and residential properties in Darlington. Under the plan, properties unoccupied for more than 30 days will be considered vacant. The ordinance also will apply to homes vacant because they’re up for sale, said Rock. It won’t apply to “snowbirds,” residents who leave for long vacations or who usually live elsewhere “for a specific time period and have the intent to return.” The ordinance won’t be retroactive; the city won’t consider how long a home or business has been vacant in the past. A “vacant” home or business will have to be registered with the city within a month under the ordinance. A “property plan” will be worked out, dealing with maintenance issues, repairs, etc., and in some extreme cases, plans for demolition of the property. Vacant buildings, the ordinance says, must be “maintained and kept” so that “they appear to be occupied.” The owner must remove “abandoned and junk vehicles.” Annual registration fees will vary based on condition of the building and on how long the property has been vacant, from the effective date of the ordinance. For residences or commercial properties vacant for up to a year, the initial registration fee would be $400 to $500. For properties vacant one to three years, the fee is $1,000 a year. For properties vacant more than three years, the fee is $3,000 a year. Also last week, council gave initial approval to its budget plan for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. Rock said that, as far as she knows, no pay raises are included in the budget. Does the budget raise property taxes? That more or less depends on your point of view. Rock said the budget sets tax millage rates 1 point higher than last year’s 128 – but that’s 5 points below 2019’s level of 134. In other business June 8, City Council held an executive session to discuss, among other things, candidates for the city manager’s job.Council has interviewed at least eight applicants in private, in executive session. During the “public comment” portion of council’s meeting last week, former Darlington Mayor Gloria Hines took the podium to urge council to make its decision on a new manager based solely on professionalism, not on any possible political connections. “When you hire a qualified person, they know what they’re doing,” Hines told council. “But when you hire somebody that knows a little bit, that don’t know what they’re doing, they mess up a whole lot of things.” Hines said the city needs a city manager with a degree in business or human resources. “I do hope when y’all make your decision, that you will hire, not your buddy, not your classmate, not your neighbor – hire the one that’s qualified, not because you know the person.” Rock said council will conduct more interviews this week.