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Proposed storefront effort by town, citizens asks landlords to register

When a Special Town Meeting convenes Oct. 19, members will face 11 articles, one of them addressing a nagging issues in the Center -- empty storefronts.

Board of Selectmen logo, Jan. 23, 2013

News that a specialty coffee shop plans to take the former CVS space, a few doors down from Starbuck's, means one empty business may be occupied at some point, yet the overall problem remains.

Following informal concern at last spring's Town Meeting, town officials, spurred by citizens' group Support Arlington Center, drafted a proposed bylaw, and selectmen discussed it Monday, Sept. 26.

Following questions seeking clarity about the details of the proposal, selectmen voted, 5-0, to accept it.

Proposal includes public art

Under Article 6 of special meeting, a bylaw amendment would establish a list of vacant properties requiring commercial and industrial owners to register those properties with the town. Owners must satisfy minimum maintenance and security requirements, and pay fees. The measure provide for fees to administer the registry, fines for noncompliance and criteria for waivers of either or both fees or fines. No fee or fine amounts have been established.

Town Counsel Doug Heim described the proposed amendment as a collaborative effort involving Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine, Planning Director Jenny Raitt and the citizens’ group, led by nonbusiness owners who became active in June. Heim said the "fairly well-vetted tool" is used nationally to encourage landlords to fill spaces.

An added feature proposed by Raitt would waive fees if a landlord agrees to display public art in windows of empty storefronts. Read the full text of Heim's memo about the proposal below.

"I like the direction," Selectman Dan Dunn said. "I was worried at first ... that we were trying to go too far.... [This is a] pretty smart balance."

Various questions raised

Selectmen Kevin Greeley wondered why the start date was Oct. 1. If the amendment passed the Oct. 19 meeting, then it would not take affect for a year. He asked: "Why wait a year? How about April 1?"

Heim called the start date flexible.

Selectmen Chair Diane Mahon wondered whether the issue would be postponed to the board's next meeting, Oct. 17.

In response to queries from Greeley, Heim said that fees have not been fully spelled out and models around the country show them to be wide-ranging, from $15 to $500. Fees would not be for any vacancy but those longer than 21 days.

Property owners, which does not apply to residents, have the responsibility to register with the town. The Planning Department would track them.

Greeley suggested setting the fee at $100 and asked if a landlord rented the space two weeks after reporting a vacancy, would the fee be returned? Heim said it would not.

Greeley asked: What if a property remains empty after six months, should the owner face another fee?

Heim said the town can't charge a fee to get them to rent. The amendment needs to have flexibility, he said.

On Oct. 19, Town Meetings will have their chance to vet and vote on the matter.

Full text of town counsel's memo regarding the proposed amendment

This article was developed and inserted at the request of the Town Manager in consultation, with the Planning Department and the Legal Department, to respond to resident and business community concerns about the volume of vacant storefront commercial properties in Arlington by instituting a Vacant Property Registry. As the Board well knows, there are limits to what the Town can do to address the manner in which owners utilize their private property. However, one well-vetted and increasingly utilized tool to assist communities in understanding and managing vacancies is to require commercial and industrial property owners to advise the Town of lengthy vacancies and provide clear, consistent expectations for the maintenance and care of such properties during vacancy periods.

In fact, over fifty cities and towns in the Commonwealth now have similar ordinances, many of which were created within the last ten years. Many of such ordinances include residential properties, or are focused more on specific types of public safety concerns which are not now prevalent in Arlington. However, others in Massachusetts and indeed throughout the United States have been adopting, revising, and interpreting vacancy ordinances to serve a widening range of public interests, including economic vitality, preservation of neighborhood integrity, and encouraging walkable, bike able, and public transit-friendly local business.

In Arlington, residential property values and occupancy rates continue to be very strong, as do overall property values. Nonetheless, it is my understanding that there is much concern within the local business community and within some Arlington neighborhoods, that a high volume of storefronts remain vacant for lengthy periods without adequate, consistent efforts to lease, sell, or maintain them. Moreover, a host of diverse problems associated with long vacant properties present potential issues.

The establishment of a vacant property registry will allow the Town to closely track the length and frequency of long commercial and industrial vacancies, and hopefully encourage owners to fully utilize Town and local business community resources to keep Arlington properties occupied. Meanwhile, it will provide also mechanism for the Town to require good maintenance practices while properties sit unoccupied.

I note for your specific consideration that while the proposed bylaw vests most of the jurisdiction in the Building Inspector as well as the Planning Director, it allows this Board to determine and adjust the regulatory fee for annual registration. Fees (as opposed to the proposed $100 per-day fine set forth in the bylaw) varying dramatically throughout the state, running as low as $15.00 and as high as $500.00 per year. Allowing the Board to set and adjust the Registry's annual fee may be helpful here as the Town attempts to balance the need for regulation without overburdening property owners, especially those trying to lease and maintain vacant properties iii earnest.

DRAFT VOTE: That Title V 0/ the Town Bylaws be and hereby is amended to add Article 16 "Registration and Maintenance 0/ Vacant Commercial and Industrial Buildings" to read as follows:

Section 1. Findings and Purposes.

The purposes of this bylaw are to protect the welfare and economic vitality of the residents of the Town of Arlington by protecting property values, maintaining neighborhood integrity and accessibility, safeguarding against economic property blight, protecting Town resources, and ensuring the safe and sanitary maintenance of commercial and industrial vacant buildings. Among other things, vacant commercial and industrial buildings can degrade the vitality of neighborhood commercial centers, frustrate local planning and development efforts, create increased specific risks of fire damage, vandalism and unlawful entry or uses, and give rise to other public health and safety hazards. This bylaw is intended to promote the Town's public welfare and economic health by requiring all property owners to register and properly maintain vacant commercial and industrial buildings.

Section 2. Definitions.

As used in this article, the following terms shall have the meanings indicated:

"Building Inspector" -The Building Inspector of the Town of Arlington or his or her designee.

"Legally Occupied" - Occupied in accordance with the provisions of the Massachusetts Building Code.

"Owner" A person or entity who, alone or severally with others:

A. Has legal or equitable title to any building or has care, charge or control of any building in any capacity including but not limited to agent, executor, executrix, administrator, adminstratrix, trustee, or guardian of the estate of the holder of legal title; or

B. Is a tenant with a legal right to possess an entire building; or

C. Is a mortgagee in possession of any building; or

D. Is an agent, trustee, receiver or other person appointed by the courts and vested with possession or control of a building; or

E. Is an officer or trustee of an association of unit owners of a condominium or cooperative which contains a vacant building.

"Planning Director" - The Director of Planning and Community Development for the Town of Arlington or her or his designee.

"Public Art" - Works of art for public benefit and viewing, approved by the Department of Planning and Community Development, for which owners have agreed to the temporary display inside storefront windows or upon other safe, visible exterior surfaces of vacant properties for agreed upon time periods and other material terms.

"Vacant Building" -- Any unoccupied commercial or industrial real property which:

A. Is not legally occupied, is abandoned, or is not used for a period of at least twenty­one (21) consecutive days or longer by occupants having custody or legal right of entry to such property; or

B. Which is intermittently occupied by persons with legal right of entry, but exhibits in the opinion of the Building Inspector dilapidated walls, roof or doors which fail to prevent the entry of a trespasser for a period of more than seven (7 days).

Section 3. Registration.

A. Prior to, or not more than seven (7) days after a property becomes a vacant building, as defined herein, the owner(s) must register the vacant building with the Department of Planning and Community Development and the Building Inspector on forms agreed upon and provided by such departments. All registrations must state the owner's name, phone number, and mailing address as well as an emergency contact, if not the same. This registration must state if the property is vacant at the time of filing, and if so for how long the building shall remain vacant. None of the required addresses shall be a post office box. Once the building is no longer vacant or is sold, the owner must provide proof of sale or written notice and proof of law/occupancy to the Planning Department or Inspectional Service Department pursuant to the process outlined by such departments. The Building Inspector will notify Police, Fire, Water and Sewer, and Health Departments of the submitted registration of vacant building as well as the reoccupancy of the building.

B. The Planning Director and the Building Inspector may jointly exempt a property owner from the provisions of this bylaw upon the presentation of evidence, in such form as may be convincing to them, that the failure to use or occupy a building for a period in excess of 21 days does not violate the purpose or intent of this bylaw.

Section 4. Annual Registration Fee, Failure to Pay, Waiver.

A. On or before October 15 of each calendar year, the Town shall send a billing statement, setting forth the annual registration fee, to the owner of the vacant building. The annual registration fee shall be set by the Board of Selectmen pursuant to MG.L c. 40, §22F

B. On or before November 15 of each calendar year, the owner of any vacant building shall pay to the Town an annual registration fee to cover the administrative cost of monitoring and ensuring the security and proper maintenance of such building, as identified in said billing statement. Failure to pay the annual registration fee shall be a violation of this bylaw, and the full fee shall be deemed an assessment resulting from a violation of this bylaw, Such fee, and any fines issued for violations of this bylaw, shall constitute a "municipal charges lien" on the property on which the vacant building is located, to be collected in accordance with MGL c. 40, §58.

C. Owners may apply for a waiver of the annual registration fee on or before October 1 of each calendar year, requesting waiver of some, or the entire fee on grounds of demonstrable financial hardship, or by agreeing in writing to display public art as defined herein for the term of a vacancy. Waivers for public art display will be granted only as sufficient public art is available, appropriate to the location for display, and the Town, artist, owner agree to terms of exhibition as set forth by the Planning Department.

Section 5. Maintenance Requirements.

A. The owner of a vacant building must maintain the vacant building in accordance with all applicable local and state Sanitary Codes, Building Codes and Fire Codes, pertaining to the external/visible maintenance of the building and major system maintenance of the property.

B. The owner of a vacant building must promptly repair all broken windows, doors, other openings and any unsafe conditions at a vacant building. Boarding up of open or broken windows and doors is prohibited except as a temporary measure allowed by Title. V; Article Seven of these bylaws, unless the Building inspector determines that, due to vandalism or security reasons and due to circumstances out of the owner's control, the proper boarding of windows and doors is necessary for a determined period of time. Boards or coverings must be fitted to the opening size and colored to blend with the existing building color scheme.

C. The owner must maintain the building and property for the duration of the vacancy or abandonment. The owner shall maintain the condition of the building and property so as to appear not to be vacant. Upon notice by the Building Inspector, any accumulated trash and/or graffiti shall be removed from the property by the owner within seven (7) days. The Building Inspector and/or his designee will document violations. The owner of any building vacant for a period exceeding six months, whose utilities have been shut off, shall have those utilities removed or cut and capped to prevent accidents.

D. Compliance with this bylaw shall not relieve the owner of any obligations set forth in any other applicable bylaw, regulation, codes, covenant conditions or restrictions and/or association rules and regulations. In case of a conflict with these rules and regulations, the stricter of the rules and regulations shall apply.

Section 6. Inspections.

The Building Inspector, Police Chief, Fire Chief and the Health Director, or their designees, shall have the authority to periodically inspect the exterior and interior of any building subject to this bylaw for compliance, as authorized under the terms of registration form filed with the Building Inspector and Planning Department. The Building Inspector shall have the discretionary authority to disconnect utilities immediately if a potential hazard that may be dangerous to life and limb is present.

Section 7. Violations and Penalties; Enforcement.

A. Violations of any portions of this bylaw shall be punishable by a fine of$100 per day in total. However, the Building Inspector and Planning Director may waive the fine in total or in part upon the abatement of the violation(s).

B. The Building Inspector or his designee shall enforce all provisions of this bylaw and shall institute all necessary administrative or legal action to assure compliance. Any owner found to be in violation of this bylaw shall receive a written warning and a minimum of seven (7) days to remedy all violations prior to the institution of any enforcement action by the Building Inspector, acting on behalf of the Town of Arlington, may also bring a civil action in a court of competent jurisdiction seeking equitable relief to enforce this bylaw. This bylaw may also be enforced through non-criminal disposition in accordance with the provisions of the Town bylaws. 

Section 8. Unsafe Buildings.

If the Building Inspector determines the building to be unsafe, the Commissioner may act immediately in accordance with the Massachusetts State Building Code to protect public safety. Furthermore, nothing in this bylaw shall abrogate the powers and/or duties of municipal officials to act pursuant to any general statutory authority including, without limitation, MGL c.
139, §I et seq. and MGL c. 143, § 6 et seq.

Section 9. Severability.

If any provision of this bylaw is held to be invalid by a court of competent jurisdiction, such provision shall be considered separate and apart from the remaining provisions, which shall remain in full force and effect.

DRAFT COMMENT: The Board of Selectmen appreciates that a Vacant Property Registry is a tool of significant utility to the Town and Iocal business community, while also recognizing that it is not a solution to all vacancies in and of itself. The Board also appreciates the substantial efforts taken to date, and continuing by neighborhood leaders, concerned residents, and members of Arlington's business community to address the issues and findings set forth in the proposed bylaw through non-governmental action. The benefits of the Registry in terms of further codifying a consistent set of Town's expectations for maintenance and care of unoccupied properties alone could be substantial.

However, the Registry's usefulness in encouraging commercial and industrial property owners, to be thoughtful before allowing their properties to sit vacant for long periods, as well as to potential buyers and tenants is also clear. As such, the Selectmen urge favorable action under this article.


Aug. 19, 2016: What do Center landlords have in mind? So far, we have only bits, pieces

Aug. 3, 2016: Are landlords squeezing store owners with larger plans in mind?

Opinion, Aug. 3, 20016: Center have you down? Here's what you can do

July 11, 2016: Residents' energy aims to spur town to fill Center's emptiness

June 21, 2016: Ideas unveiled aimed at refreshing Mass. Ave. in the Center

Aug. 22, 2014: Vacant -- but waiting to be occupied with your ideas

Town database of available commercial properties (updated July 12) 


This news summary was published Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016.

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