Rockingham OKs public nuisance ordinance

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BELLOWS FALLS — A new public nuisance ordinance targets everything from drug houses to unpainted buildings.

The Rockingham Select Board unanimously approved the proposal, despite suggestions that there are better strategies for addressing drug activity.

Laura Schairbaum, project director of Greater Falls Connections, and Suzanne Belleci, director of the Greater Bellows Falls Restorative Justice Center, both urged the board to consider a more collaborative approach to dealing with the problem of addiction.

The nuisance ordinance is designed to give the town, along with its two major villages — Bellows Falls and Saxtons River — a tool to address problems such as houses and businesses that are blighted by piles of garbage, junk cars, dilapidated structures and unkempt lawns.

The formal title of the ordinance is the "nuisance, blighted, unsound or abandoned property ordinance."

Charles Wise, the town's zoning administrator and one of two "safety officers" designated in the ordinance, said he will only react to complaints, and will not go looking for violations, which can escalate to daily $100 fines or a day in court.

Town Manager Wendy Harrison admitted that the ordinance does not detail the town's intent, and she said the town will revisit the ordinance in six months or a year. The new ordinance does not go into effect for 60 days, Select Board Chairman Peter Golec said. Harrison and Wise said the town is looking for "voluntary" compliance as a first step.

Select Board member Susan Hammond questioned the requirement that all buildings have 60 percent of their paint intact, and she noted that such neglect is often the result of inadequate funds.

She said she is concerned about situations arising such as an elderly 90-year-old woman living on Social Security who can't afford the high cost of painting her house. "What if there's no money available?" Hammond said.

Harrison said the town is working to find alternative sources of funding for individuals in need. "We need to set up a fund," Harrison said, noting that the town wants to address buildings that bring down the tax values of surrounding properties.

Wise said if he receives a complaint about paint problems, a compromise might call for the painting of one side of the building per year until it is up to the standards of the new ordinance.

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Schairbaum said she and other members of her organization have tried to work with the Rockingham Planning Commission, which drafted the ordinance, but that they have been unable to reach a compromise. She sent the five members of the Select Board information about a suitable compromise late Tuesday afternoon, but still felt the concerns of the people she works with needed to be represented.

She said her organization wants to deter crime, but punitive actions against addicts "had not shown to be effective," and she said she wants the town to "treat people compassionately."

She urged the town to instead adopt what she called "a public health approach to this."

Peter Golec asked how a drug house qualifies as a "blighted" structure.

One resident, Ginger Driscoll, said she is concerned about a lack of specificity in the ordinance, and she said some people could be victimized by unhappy neighbors.

Wise admitted that he would have to take each complaint on a case-by-case basis.

Belleci said her organization works with people who are facing criminal charges, but restorative justice is an alternative method of resolving such conflicts. She said her organization can work with the town and with people who need to perform community service, addressing some of the problems identified by the ordinance.

"We're underutilized," Belleci said, "and this is right in our wheelhouse."

She said her organization works with people in the ancient model of what she described as "hand-holding and butt-kicking."

The village of Bellows Falls already has a public nuisance ordinance that addresses unsafe buildings, but it has been struggling with enforcement.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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