Real Estate News

Pierce County moves to deal with eyesore homes

Nine months ago, the Pierce County Council approved requiring foreclosed homes to be registered.

Since then, no registry has been created.

County Executive Pat McCarthy said a foreclosure registry would be too costly and wouldn’t include vacant homes that don’t formally reach foreclosure. She said there’s no current proposal to create a registry.

“I just don’t believe that’s the answer,” she said. “I don’t want to create a bureaucracy that would be very expensive.”

Instead, McCarthy wants to add new code standards and streamline enforcement for dealing with vacant properties that become eyesores. On Dec. 10, the county’s Planning Commission recommended McCarthy’s proposal, which she will forward to the council.

Councilman Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, spearheaded the resolution approved in March to address the problem of foreclosed, abandoned homes turning into public nuisances and health hazards. He said he supports the new code standards and more efficient enforcement but also said he continues to back a foreclosure registry.

To keep costs down, Flemming favors a registry that would rely on the public to report foreclosed properties that have become nuisances.

“It’s not off the table,” he said. “Without that, you really don’t have a way of managing and tracking those foreclosed properties.”

McCarthy’s response: “I just disagree with Council Member Flemming’s assumption.”

The County Council unanimously approved the resolution calling for foreclosed homes to be registered and abandoned residential properties to be maintained. The measure directed the Public Works and Utilities, the Planning and Land Services and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health departments to develop recommendations.

An ordinance was to be completed by the end of June, but developing a proposal with council and staff members took more time.

It was worth the effort, McCarthy said.

“I’m really pleased with what we did,” she said. “It’s been a well-thought-out path forward.”

In her proposal, McCarthy wants the council to add new code with stricter, more complete standards for identifying blighted properties and maintaining them. Those added standards would be taken from portions of a document called the International Property Maintenance Code.

For instance, buildings covered with graffiti are not currently a violation of county code. Nor are homes with yards where grass is 3 feet high and covered with branches, said council analyst Hugh Taylor. They would be violations under the new standards.

The international code is commonly used by other jurisdictions, such as King County, Taylor said.

McCarthy also wants to streamline enforcement of the code. Proposed changes would reduce by half – to 92 days from 185 days – the time from when the county receives a complaint to when it could seek court action against a property out of compliance, said Steve Wamback, with public works and utilities.

“It’s basically to allow us to act sooner,” McCarthy said.

Flemming said that reduction was his idea.

McCarthy’s proposal also lists several zoning violations – such as using cargo containers for temporary storage – that would be subject to civil infractions without going to court.

McCarthy also included $120,000 in next year’s county budget for educating the public about blight and nuisance issues and for site cleanup, such as illegal dumping and junk vehicles.

Flemming said staff members for the council and McCarthy have been dealing with the issues.

“There’s been a lot of negotiations back and forth on this,” he said. “It’s been a very sensitive item but a very hot one for the community.”

The annual number of trustee sale notices countywide since the recession took hold in 2008 is three times as high as the average over the previous 14 years, according to a council report.

Notices of trustee sales are the first step in the foreclosure process.

While Flemming doesn’t blame anyone for the delay in proposing changes, he said it shouldn’t have taken a year to work out the details. He said he wants the council to deal with an ordinance in January on a “fast track.”

He expects the council will adopt portions of the International Property Maintenance Code to add needed criteria for blighted properties.

“We’ve worked our way through it and now we have a tool, and we’ll move forward,” Flemming said.