Medford takes steps to track unoccupied properties and have them maintained

Since February, Erik Roth has looked warily from his porch at a burned-out house on Tripp Street in Medford.

Roth, 35, said he is happy the city is stepping up efforts to keep track of vacant properties to help ensure they are not illegally occupied or becoming an eyesore.

"That would be good just to make sure that nobody moves in," he said.

Medford will require property owners to sign a registry with the city if a dwelling is going to remain vacant for more than 10 days. The ordinance approved by the City Council last week will be enforced after Oct. 1 once the forms become available.

There would be no fees to have a house on the registry, but if the property owner fails to heed warnings to clean up or make repairs, it could lead to a $250-a-day fine.

Vacant homes around the country have attracted vagrants and others who illegally move in, pay the utilities and go as far as setting up drug operations, said Medford Police Sgt. Greg Lemhouse.

So far, squatters haven't been found in vacant homes in Medford, he said.

An empty house with broken windows, dead vegetation and overgrown weeds is an eyesore in any community and brings down property values, Lemhouse said.

The new ordinance will give police one more tool to keep track of vacant properties and forces the owners to monitor their houses.

"It keeps the neighborhood from being blighted," he said.

For vacant properties, the new registry will contain the name of the lender, the mailing address of the lender, a contact name, a physical address for the lender's agent to receive legal notices and the contact information for any property manager.

The lender would be responsible for ensuring that the property doesn't become a public nuisance. Regular watering and pruning would be required to maintain vegetation. Pools and spas would have to be maintained in working order so the water remains clear, or the pool or spa would have to be drained and covered. All windows, doors and other openings would have to be secured.

If the lender is out of the area, it would need to hire a property management company to perform the maintenance.

The city would have the authority to require additional security lighting, frequent on-site inspections, security guards or other measures to prevent the decline of the property.

So far, police officials have identified about 400 vacant houses in Medford.

Lemhouse said that once houses are placed on the registry, they will be visited by police and code enforcement officers periodically.

Even with the registry, the city could have problems on some properties that have multiple owners or multiple lending institutions involved, he said.

For instance, it took city officials about eight months to contact lenders involved in a run-down property on Delta Waters Road.

The city already cleans up blighted properties by cutting weeds or draining pools, charging the owners or placing liens on the property to recoup its costs.

Residents can report vacant houses directly to the city at 774-2016.

Lemhouse said the city plans to contact lending institutions and property managers to get the word out about the registry.

While the registry won't solve all the city's problems with vacant homes, Lemhouse said, it should be a big help.

"Fewer properties would go through the cracks," he said.

Russ Milburn, chief financial officer at People's Bank of Commerce in Medford, welcomed the registry, and the patrols.

"Banks in general want to be good corporate citizens," he said. "We don't want any urban blight with our name on it."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.