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St. Paul Park to charge fee for vacant homes

Delapidating vacant homes continue to be a problem in St. Paul Park.

Despite the housing market in the Twin Cities showing small signs of improvement, there are still empty, unkept homes scattered throughout the area. In an effort to clean up those properties, a registration program will be implemented to better monitor unoccupied homes in St. Paul Park.

The program will come at a cost to the homeowner.

Last year, St. Paul Park Mayor Keith Franke said he was distracted from the annual Heritage Days parade by several homes with broken windows and unsightly lawns along the parade route. He said something must be done to address the handful of vacant homes in the town.

"The grass was like two feet high," he said of one home last year. "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."

The foreclosed home was held by a corporate bank and had been neglected for some time, an all too common problem in the real estate market, St. Paul Park City Council members said. The city does not currently have a community service officer to enforce the city code, which was put in place to prevent urban blight, so the task is given to law enforcement.

"(Police officers) have been spending time tracking the owners," said City Administrator Kevin Walsh. "Many times it ended up being bank-owned with the bank being as far away as California. In these cases, it could take weeks or months to remedy the problem."

The registration program requires homeowners to register their property as vacant with the city and it is largely targeted at banks that hold the foreclosed property. To date, Walsh said he does not know how many vacant properties are in St. Paul Park.

"This is aimed at institutions that take over a property then ignore it," council member Tim Jones said. "When an institution takes hold, that's when the lack of care comes in. That's what I imagine this ordinance helping with."

The council recently discussed imposing a $300 to $500 registration fee, but Walsh said a lower $100 fee would entice more homeowners to register and is more competitive with surrounding communities.

"We thought this would be a good starting point in order to get a registration list going," Walsh added.

Franke suggested adding language in the future that he said would "add more teeth" to the ordinance, such as increasing the fee three-fold if the homeowner did not register their vacant property within a timely manner.

The ordinance does not apply to "snowbirds," or homeowners who leave their home for an extended vacation. Technically, consulting planner Nate Sparks said, the owner still maintains the property as a homestead.

"The city is hoping that a registration will lead to much quicker turnaround time in abating any problems with these properties," Walsh said.