Register vacant properties? In nearby Sumter, ‘It has helped’
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
In 2016, the City of Sumter began requiring owners to register their vacant properties and pay the city a yearly fee as long as the properties remained empty. Five years later, how has the plan worked out? “It has done some good,” said Sumter’s communications director, Shelley Kile. “It has helped. It helps people to be more pro-active. … (City) Council still supports it; they want to continue (the program).” “There was an initial fear of the unknown” when the program began, Kile said. “People thought it was government reaching out to take their property. … People said, ‘I’m already being taxed. Why am I being fined?’” Darlington City Council is considering a similar vacant-property registration program, although there are big differences – Sumter has a population of 40,000 to Darlington’s 6,000, and Sumter’s plan focuses more on residential properties than commercial ones. Darlington’s plan would leave residences untouched and only apply to the estimated 100 to 125 empty commercial properties in the city limits. But the basic idea is the same in Sumter, Columbia, Greenville and countless other cities across the nation using similar plans – to combat blight and eyesores by pushing owners to fix up, rent, sell or otherwise occupy empty properties. Darlington Mayor Curtis Boyd fully endorsed the plan at an April 13 City Council meeting. Later, in a message posted on the News & Press’ Facebook page, Boyd said: “We are not here to make money from fines, but to bring our town back to life. Other cities have this ordinance and it has worked to make owners not just let a property sit and become an eyesore and hazard to others.” Readers have posted a range of reactions on the News & Press’ Facebook page, including: — “The owners can’t help that a business cannot support itself in Darlington; don’t see why you would punish them.” — “Make owners tear down or fix up! No new people will come to a place so terribly run down!” — “Why don’t these incompetents work on putting businesses in these buildings instead of imposing fines, which is what these are!” The Darlington proposal, presented to City Council by city planner Lisa Chalian-Rock, would require an owner to register a commercial building with the city if it’s vacant 30 days or longer. The yearly registration fee would vary according to the condition the building is in. For a structure in good shape, with no violations of city building codes, the fee would be as low as $100. For a property in poor shape, with problems meeting city codes, it might be as high as $400 or $500. Unpaid fees likely would be tacked onto the owners’ property-tax bills. (Fees differ greatly from city to city. In Sumter, the first year’s registration fee is zero. Second year: $100. Third year: $500. Fourth year and thereafter: $1,000. In Columbia, where the vacant-property registration plan covers both commercial and residential properties, the maximum registration fee is $1,000 a year for commercial properties and $500 a year for residential. (Columbia passed its vacant-property ordinance in 2019, but some residents told Columbia City Council it was a mistake. “Basically, what we’re doing is we’re criminalizing all vacant buildings,” said one resident. “The fees are not really fees; they’re penalties,” said another resident.) Darlington City Council could take up the issue again next month.