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Out of the Woods / Blight vs. rights: Preserving the character Westport

Published 6:46 am, Wednesday, August 14, 2013
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Ever since I moved to Westport -- 45 years ago -- Westporters have been more and more aware of the special character, of the "look," of our town. Over the years, they have turned to gentrification as a way of preventing it from developing pockets of blight.

The problem is that the town does not have the legal power to halt blight. Help is on the way to keep the town and its private homes in tip-top shape all year round.

Representative Town Meeting member Lou Mall, working with Assistant Town Attorney Gail Kelly, has come up with a great idea to maintain Westport permanently in good shape.

A proposal to designate blighted properties when they adversely affect nearby property values and are seen as eyesores will be proposed to the next meeting of the RTM Sept. 4.

Under a new town ordinance, the first selectman would appoint a five-member Blight Prevention Board that would regularly hear complaints from the public. If the board decided there was a violation, it would set a specific amount of time for the owner to correct it.

"What this is designed for is to go after willful neglect," Mall told the Westport News.

In some of the town's districts, there are numerable houses and commercial structures that have "languished for more than a decade," Mall said. In particular, he mentioned properties along the Post Road West, near the intersection with Riverside Avenue. One house on Patrick Road had been in disrepair for 19 years, deteriorating to the point where neighbors home values declined because of it.

This observer had a similar experience during the past 45 years. One house at the end of our road became so dilapidated that many of us as neighbors felt it was affecting real estate values. The owner was unable to make any repairs and the home remained in glaringly bad shape until it was sold to a builder who razed it and put up a new house. I realized the town had no power to do anything about it.

The new regulation that would avoid such a crisis would define "blight" if it had one more of the following conditions, according to town officials:

It is a fire hazard, according to Fire Department officials.

It attracts illegal activities, according to the Police Department.

Under the proposal, the town would be especially sensitive to residents who are elderly, disabled, mentally ill, or lack the finances to repair the blighted residence. In the event a property owner is unable to make the repairs, the town would focus on getting the home repaired with cooperation from the Health, Planning and Zoning, and Human Services departments.

"We want it to positive, not a weapon to be used against people," Mall told the Westport News. The story pointed out that nearby towns such as Fairfield, Bridgeport and Trumbull have expressed the view that a blight ordinance would be accepted by the public.

My own view is that the proposed new regulation, after it is carefully examined by the Town Attorney's office to make certain it does not intrude on individual privacy and other Constitutional rights, should be carefully considered, amended if needed, but given every chance to be put it into effect as soon as possible.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com