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Vacant buildings face new regulations from city

Across the city of Hastings, residents are seeing more and more buildings standing empty and left uncared for - with broken windows, overgrown grass, and sometimes even structural damage. They can be mere eyesores for the neighbors, but they can also cause more problems.

"Vacant buildings are a major cause and source of blight in residential and non-residential neighborhoods, especially when the owner or responsible party of the building fails to actively maintain and manage the building to ensure it does not become a liability to the neighborhood. Vacant buildings may attract transients, homeless people, trespassers, and criminals. Neglect of vacant buildings, as well as use of vacant buildings by transients and criminals, creates risks of fire, explosion, or flooding for the vacant building and adjacent properties...."

The above statement is part of a new ordinance the Hastings City Council is considering that would require the owner or party responsible for a vacant building to register it with the city within 30 days after it becomes vacant. One purpose of the registration is to make the city aware of vacant buildings for public safety reasons. While vacant, the buildings would also have to adhere to a set of maintenance rules outlined in the ordinance.

The council approved the first reading at its meeting Monday evening. Changes are still possible, and the council's administrative committee will meet again to further discuss the details. A public hearing and second reading are scheduled for May 2, after which the council could vote to approve the new law.

Not everyone on the council is thrilled with what the current language means for property owners.

"I've been quite uncomfortable with this from day one," said councilmember Mike Slavik.

Slavik serves on the administration committee, which has already met three times this year on the ordinance. The city does have an issue with vacant buildings, he said, but the ordinance as written may be overkill.

"This proposal feels like killing the hen for a few rotten eggs," he said.

One contention he has is the definition of a vacant building. According to the proposal, a vacant building is any building other than one being constructed under a valid permit that has been unoccupied and unsecured for five or more days, unoccupied for 30 days or more, unoccupied and unsafe, unoccupied and posted for no occupancy or unfit for human habitation or condemned and illegally occupied.

Under that definition, a rental property owner who can't find a tenant in the first month would have to register. Along the same lines, if a property owner dies, the family only has a month to fill or sell the buildings while managing the rest of the estate, Slavik said.

Registration would come with a fee, as well. The fee schedule is subject to change, but initial proposals suggested $400 for the initial registration with a $200 annual renewal fee for single family homes, townhomes, condo units, duplexes and triplexes. The fee jumps to $500 and $250 for vacant buildings with four or more living units and commercial structures. The fees are based on the time city staff would have to spend monitoring the properties, City Administrator Dave Osberg said.

The next administration committee meeting will be posted on the city's website and Facebook page. The meeting is open to the public. Individuals will also have an opportunity to raise their concerns to the council at the May 2 public hearing.