Metuchen tightens property maintenance code


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METUCHEN — Borough officials are working to strengthen the town’s property maintenance code to deter what officials call a “disconcerting” problem that has arisen over the past few years.

“We have had a few repeats of a rather unusual situation in Metuchen — residential properties that have declined and have been poorly maintained,” Borough Council President Ronald Grayzel said. “This has been particularly disconcerting because many of the properties involve longtime Metuchen residents for a variety of reasons [from] not physically able, financially able or inclined to keep their properties up [to code].”

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At the Borough Council meeting on Sept. 5, the Council is expected to discuss changes to the borough’s property maintenance code ordinance, which will be on the agenda for first reading.

Grayzel, who discussed the matter at a council meeting on Aug. 21, said the situation has posed a problem in a number of neighborhoods.

“Having one unsightly property is not the standard of care in Metuchen,” he said. “We have repeatedly called upon our public officials, Public Works Department and the construction office in an attempt to enforce our standards here in Metuchen.”

Grayzel said over the past couple of years, borough officials have learned the hard way that the borough’s current property maintenance codes are not strong and have not been efficient in providing enough administrative oversight and providing enough penalties to be an incentive for proper care and maintenance of properties.

“At the mayor’s [Peter Cammarano] request, the Borough attorney [Dennis Murphy] and I began the project at looking at and evaluating our property maintenance code,” he said.

Grayzel said the mayor and attorney suggested looking at Woodbridge Township’s property maintenance codes, which have become a model of enforcement in Middlesex County.

“We want a property maintenance code that sets the highest standard of care for maintenance of commercial and residential properties,” he said. “[We want something with] enough disincentive to get people in line with taking care of their properties.”

Grayzel said borough officials do understand that people have private property rights.

“Private property rights need to be respected and our public officials should have the ability to discuss and negotiate with homeowners before they invoke sanctions,” he said.

Murphy said the discussion about property maintenance began two years ago when the council passed a vacant property ordinance, which will work hand in hand with the proposed amended property maintenance code ordinance.

“The vacant property ordinance provides that there has to be a registration component to the vacant properties,” he said.

Murphy said the borough utilized input from Woodbridge Township and from seven to eight other town ordinances throughout the county and state.

“We wanted to make [the code] as strict as possible without infringing upon property owner rights,” he said. “We have to keep in mind before the borough can send someone on someone’s private property there has to be some immediate imminent threat of someone’s public safety or welfare.”

In the proposed amended property maintenance ordinance, Murphy said changes will be made to include the maximum amount of fines allowable by state statute of $100 a day per violation and/or a jail term of up to 90 days or community service.

“This would provide a [municipal] court judge with some flexibility [when making a decision],” Murphy said.

Murphy said there was some discussion on who can enforce the ordinance, which will include the Metuchen Department of Public Works director.

He said the proposed amended ordinance adds the prohibition of storage and refuse on residential properties.

“Any construction on site would have to be maintained,” Murphy said adding that the ordinance includes that lawns should not exceed 6 inches.

Murphy said borough officials have gone far as they can go with the proposed amended property maintenance ordinance.

“I know there was some discussion of condemnation [with the property maintenance code],” he said. “When you condemn a property or seek to condemn a property, there are all sorts of due process rights a property owner would have.”

Murphy said there will be legal proceedings.

“You just can’t take someone’s property,” he said.

Councilman Reed Leibried said the council sent a message to absentee landlords with the vacant property ordinance.

“I think some of the additions to [the property maintenance] ordinance will send a clear message to absentee homeowners,” he said. “Our residents work really hard to live in the borough. I understand that at times some people have hard times, struggles and it sounds like the ordinance will work with [these situations; however], at the end of the day, we have to do the right thing for the residents and the neighborhoods.”

Cammarano said addressing the issue has been a long time coming.

“The [issue of constant repeaters without a tightened maintenance code] has been one of the more frustrating things that borough officials have had to deal with,” he said.

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