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Old Bridge tackles problem of abandoned properties

Staff Writer

OLD BRIDGE — Dealing with vacant properties has been a problem in the township.

That is why township officials, including Damien Gil,  zoning officer; Nicole Shapiro, township engineer; Christopher Marion, business administrator; and Patrick Reardon, construction official, came together to develop a draft ordinance setting a procedure on dealing with vacant properties.

“The township has identified a problem with our vacant properties,” Gil said at a council meeting on March 7, adding that they hope the draft ordinance would prevent the problem from becoming a growing problem.

Gil said one of the most important things to take away from the existing property maintenance ordinance is it does not properly guide township officials on what to do with the vacant properties.

“It just says we need to identify them,” he said.

Gil said after researching what other municipalities do in relation to their vacant properties and a state statute, the draft ordinance establishes criteria to determine what properties should be identified on a vacant property list.

The draft ordinance establishes a procedure for the list, including how the property list should be handled and, once identified to be on the list of properties, it establishes a procedure going forward.

Gil said they contemplated a few schedule requirements including a mandatory registration fee by property owners and/or banks for identified properties.

“If absent and failure to respond, we can collect a registration fee and impose a sanction on property,” he said.

Gil said once a registration fee is in place, the township can take a five-year tiered approach to entice property owners and/or banks that are involved with the identified properties to give them time to respond to the township’s list, register into the program, and take the necessary steps to improve the property.

“We can act as fast or as slow as necessary given as the [draft] ordinance is structured right now,” Gil said. “If properties are coming off [the list], then we don’t have to act, and if we see that properties are staying on the list longer at the five-year mark, then we can start taking action to place liens on the property or start a foreclosure proceeding or taking proceeding.”

Gil said it’s important to note that as a municipality, township officials do not want to be in the business of taking property.

“A lot of these ordinances often are aggressive in their approach placing heavy liens on properties and [the properties] become de facto municipal land,” he said, which in turn forces municipalities to become landlords.

Gil said the proposed draft ordinance for dealing with abandoned properties in Old Bridge puts a procedure in place to secure the property, make sure it is safe in hopes it can be improved, which will improve the quality of the neighborhood the vacant property is in.

Business Administrator Marion said they will continue preparing a final draft, and the Township Council will consider the ordinance in April.

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