Unsightly blight in areas of Flanders and Riverside might soon be a thing of the past.
On Tuesday, the Southampton town board voted unanimously to create a blight mitigation fund that would be used to pay for clean-ups of town-owned properties and rights of way.
The fund would be created by collecting a portion of revenue from justice court fines for code enforcement and other violations.
In recent months, Vince Taldone, vice president of the Flanders, Riverside, and Northampton Civic Association said he "complained bitterly" because of dumping on a town-owned lot that was not cleaned, he said, because the parcel was on a private road; budget concerns were an issue, he said.
"So the garbage sits month after month on town property," he said. "It has been a very difficult issue to resolve and dumped garbage and other unwanted material is a real blight on our three hamlets."
Southampton Town Supervisor Throne-Holst said last month that she proposed the blight mitigation fund as a pro-active step to address chronic blight in areas of town that need it most.
"While the highway department tries to alleviate most of those needs, the town is currently not equipped to deal with ongoing clean-up and unsightly debris management at all times and when needed," she said.
The fund is predicated on a negligible, but for the effort, Throne-Holst said, significant, portion of justice court fees — up to 1 percent — in addition, newly devised civil fines and penalties to be levied on predominantly repeat code violators will help to fund the effort.
She added that the fund would give the town board the "tools and the funding to directly address these complaints — while also providing the incentive for the court to levy fines and penalties."
On Wednesday, Throne-Holst said the board voted unanimously for the new fund. "The fund will provide the town with both a vehicle for and funding to begin addressing the lingering unsightly blight issues townwide, but most especially in the Flanders and Riverside areas," she said. "I see it as an important part of the economic development and quality of life efforts we are trying to proactively support through the Riverside/Flanders economic development task force."
Taldone said FRNCA members have been complaining for years about dumping on vacant lots in the area, and about code enforcement. "Other parts of the town have also faced similar problems though to a much lesser extent," he said. "Getting properties cleaned up has been a frustrating experience for community associations and, as it turns out, town board members, as well."
Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said the blight mitigation fund will be of critical importance in the Flanders/Riverside area. "Certain absentee landlords in the Flanders/Riverside area have looked at fines for derelict properties as a cost of doing business," she said. "Their persistent neglect of their properties in residential neighborhoods burdens property owners in those neighborhoods who take great pride in their homes."
Private home owners, Taldone said, are one issue that can be addressed by simple code enforcement efforts; FRNCA's long term goal which is to create a household refuse district.
"But dumping on town-owned properties and along road rights of way has been the most difficult to deal with for just about everyone," Taldone said. "The highway department isn't funded to do the work and has been refusing to do so unless pushed, and pushed hard. When the town owned lot is on a private road, I have gotten the incredibly frustrating response that the highway department doesn't clean up along private roads - even when the private road segment is owned by the town."
In addition, Taldone said in the past, he has been told that town code enforcement officers do not ticket the town for violating the code by having debris on its property - private road or not.
"The nice people in parks and recreation drive by to their facilities for clean ups, passing the littered town-owned lots," Taldone said. "That department has indicated that the staff wants to do the work, but like highways, they are not funded to do so and can't find the resources."
Individual residents, Taldone said, "would simply get a ten-day notice from a code enforcement officer to cure such a violation after which we would get hit with stiff penalties. But the town itself is apparently above its own laws and doesn't have the financial incentive to be responsive."
Taldone said the "circular argument about which department has jurisdiction and who is funded or not for such work on public property or road rights of way has locked us into a stalemate -- and the community suffers."
The blight mitigation fund, Taldone said, is a welcome solution. "To its credit, the town board has come up with a remedy for dumping, at least on the town-owned lots and road rights of way."
In addition to the one percent contribution from justice court revenues, Taldone applauded the town for raising penalties for dumping, so that no other programs will need to be cut to fund the cleanup of blighted parcels.
The one percent contribution is expected to generate at least $18,000 per year and increase with time, Taldone said. "That is a good deal of money and will go a long way toward resolving the problem for all hamlets in the town," Taldone said. "I am very grateful for this innovative approach to what has been a seemingly intractable problem. We want to thank our town supervisor and town board members for creating this solution."
Councilman Chris Nuzzi said he believes the town should use all available resources to bolster code enforcement and deal with blight issues in the community that can adversely impact the quality of life of neighbors.
"Overcrowding and littering remains a problem in particular areas and we need to be aggressive in enforcement," Nuzzi said. "We also should be vigilant in maintaining town-owned properties."