City calls blight elimination project a success

Times Herald File Photo A member of the Robinson Construction crew watches as bricks from the chimney of a home located at 417 N.W. 11th St. come tumbling down in 2016. Part of the Blight Elimination Program, the lot where the dilapidated home once sat was put back on the tax roll. The program may have ended but dozens of dilapidated homes around Washington have been taken down over the last few years.

For the last three years, the city of Washington has been trying to get rid of one of the community's biggest headaches— run down and hazardous properties that are hard on the eyes and on property values for their neighbors. Washington Mayor Joe Wellman says that through a combination of state funding for demolition and the city's own code enforcement programs, the community has seen quite a change.

"We received $159,000 from the state over a three-year period, and we used it to purchase and take down 14 abandoned, vacant and dilapidated houses in the city," said Wellman. "Bringing down those properties was not all of the success. On about nine or 10 of those sites are now new houses and duplexes. Those properties went from the location of junk houses to nice homes for families. In other cases, the neighbors purchased the land and have extended their yards and that has also improved the area."

Because of some of the limitations placed on the city, Wellman says the city partnered with the Daviess County Economic Corporation Foundation.

"They were very instrumental in helping us get these run down properties into the city's hands and torn down," he said.

Cities and towns for years have wrestled with the problem of what to do with a piece of run down property. Many times the biggest obstacle to clearing a property was money. Often the owners didn't have the money to handle a demolition and financially strapped communities did not have the funds to take on a large number of projects. The state's blight elimination program, which ran through the end of last year, provided funding that allowed cities like Washington to do more toward taking down abandoned and run down properties.

"The state attached a lot of provisions before a city could bring down a property," said Wellman. "There were a lot of notices and legal hoops to just get to a hearing."

Those hoops and notices, though, appear to be necessary.

"We're always balancing private property rights against those of the common good for the community," said Wellman. "Certainly the people who own the property have a right to do what they want with it, but at the same time the neighbors have a right to keep their property value up and not have to deal with rats and other hazards."

The state demolition project wasn't the only tool the city used.

"We do have some powers to force property owners to take care of their nuisance properties," said Wellman. "We have put some money back for some demolition in the city budget and then used our safe building powers. Under that program we have either demolished or wound up improving 10 to 12 houses a year. You add those to the state blight elimination projects and it adds up to 70 to 80 properties in the community that have either come down or were improved back to the point where people could live in them over the last three years."

He calls the work on the dilapidated property good, but it has not been comprehensive.

"We haven't got them all yet," said Wellman. "But I am satisfied that we managed to clean up a lot of property over the last seven to eight years. I think the most satisfying part is to see the redevelopment where new houses and buildings have gone up where problem properties used to be."

The state's blight elimination project has run out of both time and money. It shut down at the end of last year, and Wellman says he has heard no rumblings about it being brought back. Wellman, who is not seeking re-election, says he sees the program as a success and would encourage state lawmakers to bring it back again in the future.

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