The Jeffco commissioners are poised to enact a distressed-property ordinance designed to prevent foreclosed homes from becoming flophouses, nearly a year after the county lobbied the state legislature to allow such measures.
The proposed ordinance, which the Sheriff’s Office revised after the commissioners earlier this year criticized a previous version as too intrusive on property rights, could be passed in as little as 60 days.
The amended document, which was presented to the commissioners Aug. 2, would let police charge property owners an initial $500 fine and $1,000 in subsequent fines for failing to register vacant properties with the county.
The ordinance is necessary, police say, because the foreclosure crisis has left many vacant structures that present safety hazards. Namely, houses fall into dangerous disrepair due to a lack of adequate maintenance or because of looting or partying by vagrants.
“When we get calls from neighborhoods or (homeowner associations), because they want us to do something, we’re powerless,” Sheriff Ted Mink said. “We’re not setting out to punish anybody. We need tools to do things.”
The ordinance would require “distressed properties,” including any foreclosed building or vacant building with a “hazardous condition,” to be registered with the county’s Planning and Zoning Division. In the event of an emergency, police would then have a person to contact at any time, particularly if officers require access to the property.
Though the ordinance was revised so as not to require foreclosed structures to be aesthetically maintained, an owner or designee would nonetheless be responsible for ensuring a vacant property is secured in order to deter trespassing. Further, maintenance would be required to address “hazardous conditions,” including graffiti, deteriorating structures, swimming pools and spas in disrepair, and broken septic systems.
The measure would mostly affect foreclosing lenders, but they would likely designate property managers to act as the responsible designees, officials said.
“We just want somebody to talk to, bottom line,” Mink said of people designated as emergency contacts.
Similar ordinances have been successful in keeping properties maintained in California and other states, sheriff’s Lt. Ron Leonard said.
At a given time, about 2,300 properties are in foreclosure in Jefferson County, including its municipalities, officials said. In recent years, vacant homes have routinely been used as party houses, some of which were damaged to the point of being unsafe.
The Sheriff’s Office cited a local home in which vandals used a television as target practice, leaving bullets and shells scattered around a room. In other instances, looters have stripped vacant homes of valuable materials, sometimes leaving exposed wiring that presented a fire or electrocution hazard.
“It’s not like we’re out there being the housing police,” Leonard said, explaining that police do not automatically have authority to enter homes with problems such as damaged water pipes. “If there’s an immediate emergency, we can go in. But the Constitution protects property rights.”
Having an emergency-contact phone number associated with vacant or foreclosed properties would help police access such homes, he said.
The commissioners unanimously commended the Sheriff’s Office for the revised ordinance, though Commissioner John Odom noted he was surprised such a system wasn’t already in place.
“There’s no mechanism for this right now?” said Odom, who was appointed earlier this year to replace former commissioner Kevin McCasky. “As a new commissioner, that’s kind of surprising to me.”
The revision was a welcomed change to the prior proposed ordinance, Commissioner Don Rosier said. Some viewed aesthetic maintenance requirements, such as mandatory repairs to damaged concrete, as a move to protect property values rather than ensure public safety.
“I am a big proponent of property rights. … I don’t want to impinge on those rights, and I feel that the last document did that,” Rosier said, praising the newly amended version. “It’s a compromise.”