Imagine if that rat-infested dilapidated house down the street — the one that’s littered with trash and mattresses — could instead become the future site for a Habitat for Humanity house.
Or, maybe the property could be transformed into a neighborhood park, or be used for some other community amenity.
That’s the kind of big-picture thinking that surfaced on Oct. 20, as the Pasco County Commission discussed problems associated with blighted properties.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey called attention to the issue by sharing an email she’d received with her colleagues.
“This property has been vacant for over a year,” Starkey read from an email. “There was a massive fire there. There was a car that caught on fire, too, in the garage. Everything is charred and burned, terribly.”
The email went on to describe ”chunks of burned debris” that were “just hanging and dangling.”
It continued: “There are rats running everywhere. There are little children playing nearby.”
Starkey wasn’t happy.
“This is a health issue here. This is just not acceptable to me,” said Starkey, noting she’s received many emails similar to that one.
Besides raising concerns about safety, the constituent complained about being unable to get a clear answer from the county regarding the status of the site.
Code enforcement told her the case had been closed; what the caller didn’t know, though, is that it had been referred to the department that handles demolition of properties meeting the criteria for removal.
Starkey asked Kristi Sims, senior assistant county attorney, to give the board a briefing on how the process works.
Sims told board members that an internal shift had been made, regarding demolition of blighted properties.
Sims said the county’s made significant progress — with more than 130 buildings being taken down last year.
“Almost 40% of those were taken down by the owners, not at county expense,” Sims said.
But, she added, there’s a backlog of 200 cases that have built up through the years.
“To make a long story short, we’ve known we’re running behind. We’re behind the eight ball. The eight ball keeps getting bigger. We’re chasing it, we’re chasing it,” Sims said.
The county has come up with a plan that it thinks will help to chip away at the backlog, Sims said. But, as it removes derelict properties, it needs to think about what happens next, Sims added.
“The more we take down, the more empty lots we’re going to have,” Sims said.
“The answer may be for us to assist in getting it into the hands of a nonprofit, like Habitat for Humanity, that will rebuild with a responsible owner and put it back on the tax rolls,” the attorney said.
Or, perhaps there’s a way to create some kind of community asset, she said.
“Community Development has hired a program coordinator who is studying the various options we have for these properties,” Sims said.
Commissioner Jack Mariano wants to find creative ways to turn community eyesores into neighborhood assets.
“There are empty lots sitting there that are not doing the taxpayers any good, aren’t doing the neighbors any good. So, I would love for us to go explore working with the banks, working with nonprofits — maybe even put a special program together, working with a tax break or something to get a new home put in there,” Mariano said.
Starkey agreed: “I think we have to have a comprehensive plan.”
It doesn’t do any good, she said, to take down a house and then have the site become a dumping grounds, “where everyone puts their washing machine and their sofa and all that stuff.”
Another problem arises when people move onto the lots, pitch their tents and live there, Starkey said.
Sims told the board that research is being done to seek solutions to these issues.
Board members said they need more time to delve into the issues, so they agreed to bring the issue back as a board agenda item — during which staff, community nonprofits and others will have the chance to share ideas for how to turn an eyesore into an opportunity.
Published November 04, 2020