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Central Point Community Service Officer Ron Barnett says uninhabitable houses like this one on Manzanita Street are a major source of urban blight. Proposed changes in ordinances would help law enforcement ensure such properties are cleaned up.

Central Point may require homeowners to clean up

CENTRAL POINT — Since the house next door partially burned last year, longtime Hiatt Lane homeowner Bob Harvey has longed for the day it would be rebuilt or torn down.

"I don't mind an empty lot next to me, but I've got a nuisance house and a fire hazard right next door that I have to look at every day," he said. The yard is overgrown with weeds and home to stray cats, and the house is nestled under a dying, soot-covered tree.

Under proposed changes to city code, the property owner would be responsible for speedy cleanup of the damage.

City officials are considering stricter laws to help police deal with blight houses, nuisance properties and graffiti. A set of proposed ordinance changes was tentatively approved at Thursday's council meeting.

Police Chief Jon Zeliff said specific language was needed to give city police "more teeth" in resolving chronic problems such as "party houses" and ongoing vandalism.

For blight houses, the proposed changes would prohibit structures from remaining "boarded, unoccupied and unsecured; partially constructed and abandoned or maintained in a condition unfit for habitation or creating a hazard."

If property owners fail to act, the city can deem the property to be unsafe, require it to be registered as a derelict structure, assess fines and eventually tear it down.

For chronic "nuisance properties" where police have been called repeatedly for reports of drugs, underage drinking or other problems, the ordinance changes would allow fines or evictions.

"These are all focused at giving the police some teeth in enforcement," said Ron Barnett, Central Point community police officer.

"The way it stands now, unless a place is structurally damaged, you don't have to fix it. You can just let it sit. And we've got houses that we visit over and over again and don't have the codes to address what's going on."

In addition to the Hiatt Lane residence, a two-story structure at Manzanita and Seventh streets burned more than two years ago and remains coated in charred insulation and siding.

"After the Fourth of July, everyone was calling about this place but, to this point, there hasn't been much we could do," Barnett said.

The ordinance changes would require timely removal of graffiti and impose fines on businesses that sell spray paint to individuals under age 18.

Currently, property owners are given no deadline to remove graffiti, though local officers encourage speedy removal to discourage rival gangs from responding with more of the same.

Rogue Creamery Marketing Director Francis Plowman, who said the Highway 99 business was recently tagged, said he favored the city's hands-on approach in educating business owners about graffiti and making efforts to require prompt cleanup.

"I'm from Philly so I know that if you don't get on it right away it can really get out of hand," Plowman said.

"It is important to take care of it so it doesn't take over the town."

Zeliff said the city would work cooperatively and compassionately with landlords and owners of nuisance properties to encourage voluntary compliance before resorting to enforcement.

"Like any law, education and environment are important," Zeliff said. "Our goal is to obtain voluntary compliance, but to do that, you've got to have the tools to show people 'this is what can happen.' "

Council members will consider final approval of nuisance property and blight house ordinances Aug. 28. If approval is granted, the new codes would take effect 30 days later.

An ordinance addressing graffiti will be presented for preliminary approval in coming weeks.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.

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