Shirley passes ordinance to combat vacant buildings

Shirley town council members say vacant homes, like this one on South Street, can lower the property values of nearby houses.  Jessica Karins | Daily Reporter

SHIRLEY — An increasing number of vacant, poorly maintained properties in Shirley has spurred the town to pass an ordinance setting out new requirements for owners and allowing for the imposition of fines.

The legislation, passed at the town council’s November meeting, sets out a series of standards for owners of vacant buildings and allows the town to impose fines of up to $5,000 per year on property owners who do not comply.

“The Town of Shirley finds that vacant and abandoned buildings may cause a hazard to public health, safety and welfare. Establishment and enforcement of a registration program and abatement of vacant and abandoned properties to prevent blight are necessary to promote the general welfare of the community,” the ordinance reads.

Shirley town council member Becky Perkins said the ordinance was inspired by an increasing number of abandoned buildings in town, most of them owned by people who live outside Hancock County and often outside Indiana. Perkins said the buildings attract vandalism, damage the aesthetics of neighborhoods and can lead to lowered property values.

Perkins said the town council has been unable to learn why property owners who do not live in Shirley allow their buildings to sit vacant.

“I don’t know if it’s a tax shelter for them or what. I can’t imagine buying a property and then just letting it sit,” she said.

The ordinance lays out a series of requirements that must be followed by owners of buildings that have been unoccupied for more than 90 days. At least once a week, owners must “ensure that the property is inspected and secured against unlawful entry, that the property is cleaned, vegetation is mowed, and that walkways are cleared of snow and ice.” They also are required to take measures to secure entrances to the property and prevent vandalism.

Owners of vacant buildings must also register the properties with the town’s code enforcement officer and maintain a liability insurance policy of at least $100,000.

If a building remains vacant or abandoned for more than 90 days without complying with maintenance standards, or if the owner is not current on all property taxes, the town can begin imposing fines for each 90-day period it remains non-compliant.

The intention of the new rules, Perkins said, is to place financial pressure on property owners that will hopefully lead them to sell their properties or to improve their condition so they can be rented out.

The town council has sent certified letters to property owners informing them of the change in the ordinance, Perkins said, but few have responded so far. Perkins said she hopes the town will start seeing results soon, and that future buyers will be deterred from purchasing property in Shirley only to leave it unoccupied.