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Blighted Newport homes get a closer look after neighbor complaints

A handful of long-neglected properties in Newport have residents and city officials taking notice.

In an effort to address several distressed properties, the Newport City Council discussed ramping up code enforcement during a recent workshop.

Throughout the last few months, Mayor Tim Geraghty said the number of complaints received relating to dilapidated homes has increased significantly, specifically relating to a home in the 500 block of Fourth Avenue.

“We wanted to have this discussion because staff felt there were other houses in the city potentially worse than that one and we want to be consistent and talk about the issues involved,” he said.

The home, which lacks proper roofing and siding, has been incompliant with housing aesthetic standards for years and the homeowner has several expired building permits, City Building Inspector Bob LaBrosse said. However, the homeowner chooses to pay the citations instead of comply with city code.

The violation is a misdemeanor, Police Chief Curt Montgomery added, and the fine is capped by state law.

Newport resident Sonya Walsh, who lives next to the home in the 500 block of Fourth Avenue, said not only is it an aesthetics issue, the home is also a safety hazard.

“(The owner) doesn’t have permits to be building the things he is,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s stable. And if a ball goes over in his yard my kids are afraid to go over and get it.”

Council member Steve Gallagher said he understood the concern and suggested looking into a schedule of fines that would increase with each subsequent violation.

However, in order to cite a violating home, residents said the city needs to step up code enforcement and asked for a full-time community service officer to patrol the neighborhoods.

With a limited budget, City Administrator Deb Hill said the city would have to look into salaries, PERA, or public employee retirement benefits, and other costs associated with adding another employee.

“We would have to be competitive with other cities in regard to salary and benefits,” Montgomery said. “It’s not as easy to add someone as you might think.”

Currently it is the police department’s responsibility to cite homeowners in violation.

Several residents asked if the city could purchase the dilapidated homes and tear them down. However, City Attorney Fritz Knaak said there is due process that must be followed.

“There is a fine line between property rights and the city’s rights,” Geraghty said. “We don’t want to have a taking when we don’t have just cause to do that.”

While the council decides how to better address distressed homes, Gallagher asked if the city could connect homeowners with nonprofit housing organizations that could help them fix the homes and suggested getting the city’s Planning Commission involved.

“We’ll come up with a plan and policies that we could implement, we’ll talk to Sherri (Buss) and we’ll bring it forward to another workshop,” Gallagher said.