The Orange Board of Health is actively enforcing the State Sanitary Code, 105 CMR 410.000 and MGL Chp 111 Section 122, to clean up a property when certain conditions exist that create a public health hazard or nuisance. Most often, these are vacant bank-owned properties. These vacant properties can bring blight to the neighborhood, decrease neighborhood property values and reduce tax revenues. Response to calls about these properties can strain the resources of local police, fire, building, and health departments. Often, they attract vandalism and crime (arson, accidental fires, drug houses). Finally, such properties can become a fire hazard and an overall burden to the community, degrading the quality of life of all residents in the neighborhood.
Many times, vacant properties are the result of an unfortunate foreclosure that displaces families from their homes. With some owners, neglecting the fundamental duties of property ownership during the foreclosure process leading to an abandoned property that becomes a health and safety hazard and nuisance. Typical hazards include:
- Overgrowth of vegetation, which can create a harborage for disease causing rodents, vermin and insects. Vegetation can lead to further deterioration of the property by creating excessive shade and moisture that affects roofs and siding. Roots can invade septic systems and leach fields, causing premature failure and further degrading the value of the home and to the property.
- Breeding habitats for mosquitoes, which transmit diseases such as West Nile Virus and EEE
- Illegal dumping of trash, garbage, and other items
- Accumulation of exterior trash, garbage, and debris left behind from homeowners
- Broken windows and unsecured doors that threaten the security of the property and surrounding properties by attracting vandalism, “squatters,” and crime.
“The Broken Window Theory” holds that “If the first broken window in a building is not repaired, then people who like breaking windows will assume that no one cares about the building and more windows will be broken…” The disorder escalates, possibly to serious crime.
When a problematic property is identified, the Board of Health will initiate contact with the owner, usually by letter, outlining the issues and seeking action to repair or remediate the problems. Often this action is sufficient to correct the problems, when absentee owners are not aware of the condition of the property. If compliance cannot be achieved after the Health Department has sent several order letters to the parties responsible for a vacant property that poses a serious health and safety hazard, further legal action is taken by the Health Department to abate or correct the hazards. This is done in order to protect the health and safety of not only the neighbors abutting the property, but also first responders in the case of fire or other emergency.
Legal actions the Health Department can take include housing court. In some cases in order to expedite a cleanup, the Board of Health uses its Revolving Funds to remove any hazards. A municipal lien is then imposed on the property for the cost of the cleanup, so that once the property is sold, all liens must be paid off by the buyer. This enables the Health Department to recoup its money and return it to the Revolving Fund for future clean ups.
The process involved to address vacant properties and hazards can be quite lengthy. We understand the urgency involved with many of these properties, and we are taking steps to protect our community. Please contact Director of Health Andrea Crete at 978-544-1107 for further information or to report a problem.