Aging housing stock, absentee owners make code enforcement a tough job in Laconia
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — A home on Endicott Street East has appliances, bicycles and junk outside. A woman who lives on Adams Street complains neighbors don't mow their grass or dispose of their trash. The out-of-state owner of a Beaman Street home never secured the structure after a fire 18 months ago.
Enforcement of city property maintenance codes in Laconia, which has an aging housing stock and many absentee owners, is no easy job.
The city has one code enforcement officer. He is a 25-hour-a-week employee. Half of those 25 hours are spent on duties other than monitoring compliance with property maintenance codes.
Planning Director Dean Trefethen said this staffing level is appropriate.
“It's sufficient,” he said. “We're not falling behind.”
The fire department inspects multi-family dwellings.
During a recent budget presentation to the City Council, Fire Chief Ken Erickson said these inspections don’t address cosmetic considerations but are aimed at making sure there aren’t safety violations.
“We can’t do much to beautify the city,” he said.
Buildings that aren’t repaired after a fire become an eyesore.
“This is the thing that really bothers me the most,” he said. “I drive around and see where we have had homes that have burned, and we can’t get them to be repaired. The owners are not fixing them. There are 41 destroyed, abandoned or vacant homes in the city right now.
“That decreases value to the neighborhood. It increases the threat for crime.”
An unoccupied building on Gilford Avenue was a major concern until improvement work started recently. The landlord had a difficult time in securing the structure.
“We’ve been in there for drug overdoses,” Erickson said. “Unless the landlord is there constantly, people break in and start living there. And that’s happening in a couple other buildings throughout the city.”
Property owners sometimes elect not to rebuild after a building burns and is torn down.
“We’ve had 12 that were torn down, and then they just leave a vacant lot,” he said. “I don’t understand why they don’t at least come back and put a building there.”
Hamilton McLean, a former member of the Planning Board, complained to the City Council last year that code enforcement efforts need to be stepped up.
He said that when he helped his daughter and her husband search for a rental unit he was appalled at the quality of housing. He said he found many substandard homes and described conditions in many apartments as deplorable.
If homes are in violation of maintenance rules, the city's code enforcement officer may spot the infractions as he scans neighborhoods. He also responds to people who see what they think are violations and complain to the city.
Such complaints often center on people who think their neighbors may be breaking rules that require residents to mow their lawns, keep property free of debris and maintain steps in good repair.
Trefethen said some complaints turn out to be unfounded. Some who complain don't leave their name, so it's impossible to report back on what the city has done.
“People say 'I think that's a drug house over there,' but that's a concern that's greatly overblown,” he said.
Trefethen said subjectivity enters the process. One person may regard a bush as overgrown, while another feels the landscaping is proper.
When the city sends a letter to property owners telling them they are in violation of residential codes, about half respond in a timely fashion. The other half are the problem.
“Sometimes we send certified letters and they don't even get picked up, they get refused,” Trefethen said. “If it gets to a point where we get no traction, we have the option of going to court.”
That's no easy situation, either.
“The courts are reluctant many times to do any significant enforcement,” he said. “Sometimes just the fact of going to court is enough to get people to go into action mode; other times it is not.”
Concerns over city’s response
Sherry Legendre, who lives on Adams Street, said her complaints have fallen on deaf ears at City Hall.
“I've called many times, but what are you going to do?” she asked. “Go fight city hall?”
On Thursday, she pointed to a residence across the street where it looks as if the grass hasn't been cut in many weeks. Another home nearby seems to have high bushes of blackberries encroaching on Legendres' property. An old barn nearby was torn down, leaving a foundation with trash on it. Steps and decks in the area seem in disrepair.
The enforcement officer is now sending letters to nearby property owners, notifying them of violations.
Sherry Legendre complains nearby residences are out of compliance with city property maintenance codes. (Rick Green/Laconia Daily Sun)
A residence on Endicott Street East is the focus of city code enforcement action. (Rick Green/Laconia Daily Sun)
Overgrown vegetation is one of the complaints investigated by the city's code enforcement officer. (Rick Green/Laconia Daily Sun)