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City of St. Paul Park proposes vacant house fee

Saying vacant houses are an increasing problem in the city, the St. Paul Park City Council expressed support recently for a proposed program that would register empty properties as a way to better monitor unoccupied homes.

Planning commissioners have been studying the issue of vacant homes for months, and the council last week directed planning staff to draft a proposed ordinance creating a program that would levy a fee on the owners of empty residential structures.

Mayor Keith Franke brought up the issue with city staff earlier this year after seeing a number of run-down, empty properties in neighborhoods around the city.

"There were these homes along the Heritage Days parade route, and the grass was like two feet high," Franke said. "We couldn't find who owned it. We thought it had been sold, it hadn't, the bank owned it, and we had to go cut the grass."

City Administrator Kevin Walsh said the city has not conducted a count of vacant residential properties, though Franke said he wouldn't characterize empty homes as a major issue.

The city of Cottage Grove began closely monitoring vacant properties as a wave of foreclosures hit the city in 2007 and 2008 after reports of damaged homes and poorly maintained properties.

The program was aimed largely at holding the banks that held foreclosed homes accountable for the properties' condition in an effort to prevent the values of surrounding homes from decreasing.

In Newport, the city started monitoring empty commercial properties and charging owners a fee if the buildings are not being actively marketed or minimum standards of upkeep aren't being met.

Franke said the proposed St. Paul Park ordinance would help keep tabs on the owners of vacant houses and the registration fee would help cover the city's costs of dealing with the issues they present.

"It's more of a way just for us to track who owns them," Franke said. "Sometimes the mortgage changes hand three times."