St. Albans City

The City of St. Albans, looking clean and clear of clutter thanks in part to the city’s property maintenance ordinance.

ENOSBURG FALLS — Here’s something unusual to be thankful for.

The Village of Enosburg Falls Board of Trustees is moving forward on a property maintenance ordinance to keep the village in tip-top shape, free of unkempt lawns, couches littering front yards or porches and heaps of garbage.

The possible ordinance seemed to leap forward with a visit from Matt Mulheron, St. Albans City’s deputy fire chief, health officer, and public health and safety officer. Mulheron visited the board at its Nov. 12 meeting on an invitation from Jim Cameron.

Cameron invited Mulheron, with the board’s consent, after Cameron spoke to the board in October to vent his frustration over the condition of a property near recently renovated properties on Depot Street.

Cameron reiterated at this mid-November meeting that while Depot Street businesses, namely the Animal Doctor, which opens Monday, are “pouring” their hard-earned finances into sprucing up those Depot Street buildings, this neighboring property looks, in Cameron’s words, “like it belongs on The Munsters.”

But as Cameron told the board at that prior meeting, the Village of Enosburg Falls doesn’t seem to have any applicable ordinance that would require property owners to keep their property tidied up.

So he, and the board, looked to Mulheron for an explanation as to how a similar ordinance makes a difference in the City of St. Albans.

Mulheron told the board the ordinance grew with the city’s downtown revitalization.

The city “put a lot of money into these streets,” Mulheron explained, “... and they wanted to make sure with this ordinance that we could keep them clean and keep them really clean.”

So the city devised a property maintenance ordinance, regulating obvious facets of property maintenance like grass length — which for the record, in the city, is 10 inches, though Mulheron didn’t pretend he’s out there with a magnifying glass and a ruler, keeping people’s grass in line.

“I’m not out there with a tape measure,” he said.

But the ordinance also regulates things like garbage — if it’s out more than a few days, it’s a problem, and that includes couches.

Mulheron used the example of a couch that he said was sitting in a snowbank at the time of his visit to the board.

“Nobody’s going to take that couch, so it’s junk, it’s garbage,” he said.

He also told the board anyone in the city can submit a property maintenance complaint. That a neighbor isn’t mowing their lawn is a common complaint, as is that a resident is trying to sell their house but the condition of their neighbor’s home is thwarting their efforts.

Mulheron said a host of property owners, landlords in particular, outspokenly opposed the ordinance when it was created. But he said the city now has a good relationship with most landlords to the point where property owners typically resolve complaints within hours.

Mulheron said in those rare cases when a property owner honestly cannot take care of their property — his example was an elderly couple — the city takes whatever means necessary to help them do so, be it low-interest loans, connecting them with financial aid resources or even taking advantage of local high school students in need of community service projects.

He told the board he can go weeks without a single property maintenance complaint — or he can get 15 calls in one week.

The board didn’t just sit on Mulheron’s explanation. Board members, particularly board chair Sam Vaillancourt, engaged Mulheron in a full dialogue about how Enosburg Falls could benefit from similar action.

Mulheron explained that the city’s program isn’t about fines, that the city often waives fines if the property owner completes the required work as soon as possible. And Vaillancourt said the village isn’t after money either.

“We just want the trash gone,” Vaillancourt said. “It’s not about the fines or anything — you just need it gone.”

He told Mulheron village staff looked at similar property maintenance ordinances in other communities, Hardwick, for example, where town officials remove trash, then bill the property owner.

“We’re just basically looking for an end result,” Vaillancourt said.

He said even driving around that day, under snow, he could see properties harboring piles of trash.

Vaillancourt said he feels an ordinance is necessary, not just so the appropriate village official can enforce it but to clarify who village residents should call.

Ward Heneveld, a village resident, asked if the board felt it should create a position similar to Mulheron’s for the village alone or for the entirety of Enosburgh.

Cameron proposed creating a position that would attend to property maintenance, or even just general health, not only in Enosburgh, but also in Swanton, Highgate, any neighboring community in need, then each community could “buy in” to that position and pay only its own share. Cameron said that could save the village and/or the town from making a significant financial investment for a new position of its own.

Larry Gervais, the town selectboard chair, is acting as the town’s health officer, as dictated by state statutes. If a community doesn’t have an appointed town health officer, it falls on the chair of the governing board.

Gervais said, “The village and town are different,” and cautioned against moving to create a position too fast.

Vaillancourt agreed with Gervais, but said he feels a community-wide position could allow the person to distinguish between the respective needs or ordinances of the town and village.

“When you have more bodies, and on the same team, it just helps everything,” Mulheron said.

The board didn’t take any official action at this meeting.

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