Weedy lots debated at town hall

Published 8:28 am Friday, August 12, 2016

Dozens of Bogalusa residents turned out Wednesday evening for the second town hall meeting dedicated to zoning ordinances.

However, unlike the prior meeting, which focused on a number of problems, this meeting tackled solutions to handle weedy, overgrown lots. Or, to be more precise, the meeting focused on a single solution proposed by Ronnie Harris, the executive director of the Louisiana Municipal Association.

Harris is the former mayor of Gretna, and he told the audience individual cities often have difficulty tracking down absent landowners, contacting them and forcing them to care for their properties. As a consequence, traditionally cities have been forced to either accept overgrown, abandoned-looking lots or they’ve spent money and used city crews to clean up the lots.

However, Harris said he is rolling out a test program that will put enough pressure on landowners to care for their properties, or else the properties will face a tax sale. In the meantime, contracted lawn crews would care for the properties.

The whole process, including the lawn care, would be paid for as part of the property tax, so if the landowner refuses to pay, the property could get sold at auction to someone else.

The program will be run through the LMA and Harris said at present the program is being tested in only three communities — the towns of Baker, Port Allen and Denham Springs. He said he wants to work the kinks out of the program before it is expanded elsewhere, but would like to include Bogalusa in the program, if the city council approves the idea.

“I ask you to be understanding and be patient,” Harris told the audience. “But I want to ask you, does this plan seem logical and fair? That’s what I’m concerned about. You pay taxes and you maintain property. Don’t you think everybody should?”

Harris said if the city council approves the program, the council could refer as many properties as it wanted to the program, though he suggested a slow start — possibly only a single residential property from each district. In addition, if he city isn’t happy with the process, it could quit.

However, while Harris said the city could qualify for a low-interest state loan of $50,000 for residential cleanups, the council would need to put out bids for contractors who would be willing and able to do the work of property cleanup.

Beyond that, most of the process would be handled by the LMA. Bogalusa would pay the LMA for these services, but the fees would be tacked onto the property taxes of the owner.

Harris said the LMA program is attractive to cities, because the LMA partners with CivicSource to offer title insurance should the property eventually get sold at a tax auction. Title insurance helps make properties attractive to buyers because it reduces risk.

However, Harris made it clear the goal of the proposed ordinance isn’t to auction off property, but to encourage landowners to take care of their property.

He said the first step would be sending the property owner a regular letter notifying them to either clean up their lot in five days or contact the city with a plan of action. In addition, Harris suggested that the city put up a sign in the offending yard, notifying everyone in the area that the owner must clean up the property.

Harris said if that first letter is ignored, the LMA would then send a certified letter notifying the landowner that the city is going to clean up their property at a cost to the landowner. If that letter is ignored, the lot will be cleaned up, and it will be maintained until either the tax is paid on the lot or the lot is auctioned at a tax sale.

Harris said the process is aligned with state law, but he admitted the efficiency of the process might not be universally popular, especially when a property owner notices they’ve been billed for cleanup services.

“What I need from y’all is political intestinal fortitude,” he said to the city council members who were present. “When the squealing pigs come, all you have to do is say, ‘All we’re trying to do is clean up Bogalusa, and I’m sorry you didn’t respond to the first two notices.’”

Members in the audience seemed to generally like the idea, although some people questioned why the city couldn’t manage the whole process itself.

Councilman Teddy Drummond pointed out that the city doesn’t have all the legal and personnel resources of the LMA.

“We might have some of the resources but we don’t have nearly all the resources,” he said, adding that the city also cannot supply title insurance.

Bob Jones, a resident, said he liked the idea. He agreed that since LMA handles the paperwork, that could take any politics and favoritism out of the equation.

Fate Ferrell,  a longtime advocate of tougher code enforcement, said he liked the proposal.

“If the homeowners don’t get up off their butt and clean up their property, then they don’t deserve to have any property,” he said. “We need to enact these laws to clean Bogalusa up.”

The city council is expected to consider Harris’ proposal at their next meeting on Aug. 16.

The next town hall meeting, in September, will focus on education. Bogalusa attorney Bill Arata, the moderator for the town hall meetings, said he would like to get an update about school enrollment and student performance in the new semester.