goleader.com - Union County, NJ Newspapers 97sep11

editorial westfield nj
Enforcement One of Issues That Must Be Addressed on Maintenance Code

In last week’s issue of The Westfield Leader, we featured a lead story on the proposed maintenance code for the town. In the works since last June, the proposed ordinance, according to members of the Town Council’s Laws and Rules Committee, solely involves exteriors of buildings and homes.

While it is unfortunate that some property owners in town have not maintained their buildings, we caution the council to make sure that this ordinance doesn’t put the town in a position of "us against them" with the "them" being property owners in town. After all, many will feel that a "man’s home is his castle." A maintenance code needs to address residential and commercial properties which are way out of whack, such as a roof that is about to collapse or a building facade which might be in danger of crashing down on pedestrians below.

This ordinance should not create unnecessary violations, such as citing people for letting their grass grow over a foot tall (the number included in the ordinance).

We do hope that the council and officials recognize that some persons may simply be in ill health, elderly or financially incapable of making the required repairs. Perhaps community groups, with both the respective homeowner’s and the town’s permission, might consider pitching in to clean up, make repairs, cut grass, etc., for those who are incapable of making such improvements.

After speaking with a few members of the committee, The Leader has learned that the committee felt it had no alternative but to create such a code to address concerns such as rats that have inhabited at least one neighborhood in town, or to go after property owners who have let their grass and plants, bushes, etc., grow out of control, thus creating unsightly conditions in some neighborhoods. Currently, the town can only cut back plant and grass growth when it impedes motorists, such as on some sections of Central Avenue. This ordinance would enable the enforcement official to enter a property with the owner’s permission or with a court order if the property owner refuses such entry.

The code would give officials the power to order that a building be razed if it is reasoned that the repairs of a building exceed the total market value of the building. In all circumstances, property owners will have a right to an appeal before a Property Code Enforcement Committee. This committee, to be formed as part of the new code, would include the Town Administrator, Town Engineer, Health Officer, Building Inspector and Fire Safety Officer. The enforcement officer for the code will not serve on this committee. Thus, if any of these officials issued a specific violation notice they will not serve during that case.

The ordinance also includes a section on motor vehicles and boats. Vehicles which are unregistered and uninspected would not be permitted to be parked or ungaraged in the town. Also, motor vehicles and boats that are in a state of disassembly or disrepair, or in the case of boats undergoing a total overhaul, would have to be garaged under the proposed ordinance.

One area which drew concern by at least one council member was the requirement that street numbers on homes and buildings would have to be displayed in a position that is "easily observable" and readable from the street.

Exterior walls and fences "shall be free of holes, breaks, loose or rotting boards or timbers" which might admit rain, thus causing dampness to interior walls. Chimneys would also have to be kept structurally "safe, sound and in good repair." Multi-dwelling buildings and those structures where food is prepared, packaged or stored, would be required to have screen doors and window screens.

Commercial buildings with vacant storefronts would be required to install temporary drop screens to obscure vacant interiors from passers-by and motorists.

The ordinance also includes language for hardship cases which will enable persons to seek a modification of a violation and/or demolition order.

One of the biggest concerns brought up by council members, and which we believe is justified, is who will have the time to enforce the new ordinance. The building department is up to their eyeballs in applications, thus the construction code official may not be able to take too much more on his workload.

Also, the health officer not only serves Westfield, which includes inspection of all Westfield food and drink establishments, including restaurants, but also the towns of Mountainside, Garwood, Springfield and Roselle Park. Adding another responsibility might be difficult.

We believe more discussion is needed on this volatile issue. The council needs to continue to educate the public on this code before this ordinance is introduced at a public meeting. A number of areas will probably have to be fine tuned, including enforcement.

The goal of this ordinance needs to be towards enhancing Westfield as a fine place to reside, shop and do business. Thus, if this code looks at overflow of rubbish on private property, the existence of rats, building facades in poor condition, and those properties where grass has not been cut in months, etc., than this is a good code.

But if the proposed ordinance creates a situation for a large majority of the town, such as repairing sidewalks that are viewed as being in such bad shape that it constitutes "a danger to public health and safety" to the public, than perhaps the town is going too far. While clearing sidewalks of snow and ice has always been a homeowner’s responsibility, shouldn’t the town be more involved in making sure sidewalks are even and not broken? Perhaps a 10-year capital improvement program could be created to address this issue. The town could also do the repairs and assess property owners.

We intend to keep our readers informed as this code makes its way to the full council for action.

Copyright 1997
TheWestfield Leader
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Revised: September 14, 1997.