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December 27, 2014

Anniston ramping up efforts to combat blight

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Posted: Saturday, June 7, 2014 10:40 pm | Updated: 10:54 pm, Sat Jun 7, 2014.

Victor Williams leaned back on a bench on the porch of his mother's house in west Anniston, reading a newspaper in the thick, muggy Friday morning air.

The house on 14th Street sat across from a boarded-up, dilapidated home. North of the home down Mulberry Avenue were overgrown, empty lots and more vacant houses.

"When you have a vacant house, it just makes the neighborhood look deserted and empty," Williams said.

Though an Anniston native, Williams has spent much of his life in Tampa, Fla., and only came back to the Model City to live last year. The deterioration of some of the city's neighborhoods has made him second guess his move.

"The decline has made me not want to stay here," Williams said with a laugh.

Hundreds of dilapidated structures and vacant lots have made parts of Anniston an eyesore for years, but efforts are underway to address the problem. The city has stepped up code enforcement and demolition work this year, but that is just the beginning. Anniston officials say they are planning a full scale war on blight that will start with the passage of the new city budget in October. It will be a systematic attack on condemned buildings and overgrown lots through increased funding and new community programs, officials say, all to improve the look of the city to attract new residents and business.

"We haven't declared war yet," said Brian Johnson, city manager. "Right now, we're getting the troops in place, coming up with a battle plan and making sure we have enough artillery."

The problem

In regard to the number of vacant buildings and lots in need of upkeep or removal, the city has its work cut out for it.

Tana Bryant, the city's lone code enforcer, said there are 120 houses in Anniston that should be torn down.

"We're talking about houses that are falling apart with roofs caving in ... and burned structures that people have walked away from," Bryant said.

On top of the abandoned homes, the City Council also has declared more than 1,500 vacant lots to be public nuisances.

Bryant said the city has stepped up its attempts to remove blight this year, tearing down 20 dilapidated homes so far and identifying 10 more for demolition in the coming months. Last year, the city did not tear down any vacant buildings, Bryant said.

Councilman Seyram Selase said combating blight was something he and fellow council members wanted to tackle as soon as they took office. Selase said removing unsightly properties improves the look of the city, but can also encourage growth.

"We want to take care of those eyesores and welcome people back into the community," said Selase, whose ward includes west Anniston. "New people don't want to move in near my ward because there are so many blighted properties ... we want to make these areas more marketable."

Mayor Vaughn Stewart agreed that combating blight is a high priority for the city.

"It's something that we take seriously because it threatens our property values and threatens our quality of life," Stewart said.

However, the city is still severely limited at how much blight it can handle this year, both by money and by personnel, Bryant said.

"Budgeting issues are keeping us from dealing with it," Bryant said. "And a city of this size with one code enforcement officer is not practical."

However, the situation could soon change.

Solutions

Johnson said that while he hasn't finalized the numbers yet, he expects to recommend the council increase funding for demolition to six figures in the next city budget. The city has spent just between $25,000 and $50,000 for contracted demolition work this year, along with doing its own in-house work.

The city is also searching for three new code enforcers, which should be trained and out in the field by October," Johnson said.

"I'm really looking forward to some help," Bryant said with a laugh.

As a code enforcer, Bryant spends much of her time out in the city, educating the public on city ordinances, helping solve problems, enforcing building codes and answering complaints.  

"The biggest complaint we hear is, 'the property by my house hasn't been cut in years and snakes and rats are coming in my house,'" Bryant said. "However, the city is not in the lawn care business, but we're forced to deal with this issue."

Johnson said once the full war on blight starts, the city will start by focusing on where improving properties will have the most impact.

"Instead of randomly looking at houses, we'll look at properties that will have a greater effect on neighborhoods than others," Johnson said.

For instance, he said, city workers would start with a neighborhood with one dilapidated home before moving to a neighborhood with 17 such structures.

Johnson added that another strategy under development is to take down vacant homes near each other all at once. He said those properties could then be combined and possibly sold off to build apartments or condos.

‘In favor of anything’

Annie Holloway, who lives on Mulberry Avenue and has lived in Anniston for the last 50 years, has witnessed the area deteriorate and welcomes the city's attempts to combat blight.

"I'm in favor of anything that they try to do to clean up the area," Holloway said. "I've lived here the last 50 years and things have gotten a lot worse."

Johnson said he also hopes the city will create an environmental court, in which the municipal judge will spend one day per week on nothing but vacant property issues.

"That way we can judicate them quickly and not just drag them out for months and months," Johnson said.

In keeping with that strategy, the council on Monday will consider amending its nuisance ordinance. Currently, the city must wait 45 to 60 days every time it wants to cut the grass of a private owner's overgrown lot that has already been declared a nuisance. With the amendment, the city will only have to wait 10 days, Bryant said.

"With the amendment, the owner has 10 days to get it cut and if they don't, the city steps in," Bryant said.

Bryant added that she is looking at a program that could help residents demolish unsightly accessory structures, such as sheds and detached garages.

"It will be income-based and a resident can apply for assistance with the city to have something removed," Bryant said. "But we don't have that program in place yet ... we're still checking the legalities of it."

Johnson said the war on blight is also about getting the community involved. He said the city will work to create neighborhood associations that can focus on cleaning and maintaining lots and their own properties.

"If a neighborhood doesn't own their improvements, it will fall right back to where it was before," Johnson said.

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