Thursday, February 13, 2014

Vacant Lots

The other day, my Diary entry dealt with making the town look greener, and I posted a photo showing a vacant lot, then the same lot after greening. One comment I got was that that particular lot was for sale to developers and therefore couldn't be touched by volunteer groups.

I admit, the reason I used that photo was because I had it handy and it was easy to Photoshop. There are other lots around, either abandoned or owned by the borough that we could start with. But the big problem is that the most obvious vacant lots--the ones right on Main Street that make our town look derelict--are privately owned and "for sale to developers." And the problem with that is that they've been "for sale to developers" for year after year after year. They've become permanent.

I've talked about these vacant lots on the Diary before. Many people think that the owners should be given time limits--one more year--and if they don't sell or develop these properties, the town should take them through eminent domain and sell them to a developer who'll actually build something there.

Today I'll propose something less drastic that should be an incentive to the owners. Our zoning states that if buidlings are leveled, the owner has to grass over the lot. This was even mentioned at the Town Hall about Montgomery Hospital last night--Einstein said they'll level the buildings and plant grass on the lot until Elon is ready to build (assuming they get their funding, which they might not get because they're trying to level a historic building. If they don't build, we could end up with another ugly vacant lot).

If this zoning regulation resulted in lush, green, well-manicured grass like you'd find on a pro-baseball field, this might not look bad, but we all know what we get instead. Either a gravel lot with a few wisps of grass fighting for survival, or wild-looking grass not mowed often enough. Litter blows into the lot or is dumped there, and it's never cleaned up.

What if, instead, our zoning laws for downtown and other commercial areas said that if the lot has no plan for development before Planning within a month of when the owner buys it or levels a building there, that the owner MUST landscape it into green space that can be used by the town. There must be a certain number of shrubs, plants and trees per acre, as well as a certain number of benches and walks (though the paths could be temporary material like mulch). The lots must be maintained as park space and kept clean, until a proposal for development is approved by Council. Or as an alternative, the owner must pay Norristown a monthly fee sufficient to cover the cost of landscaping and maintaining the property as a park until sold to a developer. If they default on the fee, then the land can be auctioned off to a developer.

Landscape the whole lot and add benches and a path.
This way, no eminent domain, yet we get a better looking lots that can actually be used by the community. The owners, not wanting to spend money to give the community free park space, would have the incentive to find a developer. The developers might give the Norristown a second look, because with good looking green space, we wouldn't look blighted. And if Norristown took on the maintenance of those spaces, we'd even get some jobs, all funded by the owners.

We could do the same for vacant houses in residential areas. Have a law saying the owner must improve the look of the house from the outside-- make it look lived in with new paint, roofing, window dressings, whatever --and landscape the yards. That's incentive to sell the property or fix it up and rent it out.

It all comes down, again, to taking the decisions on how the town looks OUT of the hands of outsiders--absentee owners who never intend to improve their properties, real estate agents only looking for an easy commission--people who've decided that Norristown doesn't deserve to be improved. The residents have to follow the town's codes, why not the outsiders?

Time to get tough on the people who are making this town look bad.

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