March 12, 2013

Vacant Property: New technology helps city move real estate

By Magen McCrarey
Staff Writer

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — As spring fast approaches, a “winterized” notice, taped to a front door, will be a tell-tell sign of a vacant and foreclosed property.  Since the beginning of the recession in 2007, City Building Inspector Doug Gilbert said the number of vacant and foreclosed properties in the City of London has grown exponentially. Currently, there are 95 under review.

“You can’t determine if these properties are vacant in the winter, but you notice it in the spring.  In the spring, it hits me full-force,” Gilbert said.

Visitors who drive through the city may immediately notice the high volume of vacant businesses.  But that’s only because Main Street is where 70 percent of them unfortunately are located, Gilbert said.

The City of London has an ordinance  that authorizes the acquisition by eminent domain and establishes a vacant property to be reviewed by the London-Laurel County Joint Planning Commission.  A property is determined as blighted or deteriorated if it constitutes a danger to public health, safety and the general welfare of the residents of the city.

London is one of few cities in the state that is making visual progress with vacant or blighted properties.  Gilbert attributes the city’s progress to modern technology.

When someone calls in a complaint, rather than drive around to look for it, Gilbert utilizes a sophisticated computer program and the state-required Geographic Information Systems to pin-point the exact location of a vacant property on his computer screen.

“We’re up on stuff like Lexington and Louisville,” Gilbert said.  

He said approximately 90 percent of the vacant and deteriorated properties in London are in the process of being brought up to code, while one-third of the property owners live out of town and dozens of non-compliant properties have been removed since 2008.  The eminent domain process can take about a year before property owners face litigation. And, everybody has a right to file an appeal, he said.  

“We’d rather have it resolved rather than purchase it through the court system.  We’d have to buy it, and the city can’t afford it,” he added.

Sometimes, a property owner will bring the building up to code on their own.

“The interior has to be structurally sound and electrical, plumbing and heat need to be kept up,” he said. “If it can’t keep a temperature of 68 degrees — then you can’t live in it.”

London Realtor Terry Binder said vacant or neglected properties are not only a sight for sore eyes, but they can bring down the value of nearby housing.  

“Vacant houses are more susceptible to being vandalized, especially those with heat and air units,” he said.  “Vacant houses deteriorate quicker too.  People don’t want to look out their door and see that.”

Binder added vacant houses are not only susceptible to vandalism, but can also become hideouts for drug activity.  

“We have a drug issue in this county, a major drug issue.  I have actually walked up to a house and noticed a foul odor. The vacant house obviously wasn’t vacant.  I called the police,” he said.

While house hunters may see vacant properties as a neighborhood nuisance, Deanna Herrmann, executive director for the London-Laurel County Chamber of Commerce, said incoming businesses may be see them as opportunities.  

“I get compliments on downtown London and London itself, how ‘clean’ it is and all the different establishments that are here that people can enjoy,” she said.

Currently in Laurel County, there are only two foreclosed properties in the city limits. Statewide, there are 6,648.  The average foreclosure sales price is $91,450.

To contact the City of London about a vacant or blighted property in your neighborhood, call Doug Gilbert at 606-864-8401.