For more than a year, Victor Crain’s home has been an eyesore for his neighbors on May Belle Court — an otherwise well-kept neighborhood street where almost all of the yards feature manicured flower beds and freshly mowed lawns.
But Crain’s property was flooded with garbage bags and debris. His backyard was so overloaded with junk that he put up white tarps to block the neighbors’ views. That’s in violation of city-parish blight ordinances that prohibit junk from being stored in any front yard, backyard or even an exposed carport.
He’s received several warnings from the city-parish government to clean up his property. And on Thursday, an administrative judge said he was giving Crain his last chance.
“This is your property and you’re responsible for the condition of it,” said administrative hearing Judge Curtis Calloway. “This is the last extension I’m going to give you.”
Crain said after the hearing that he’d been busy taking care of a sick family member, which had stalled the cleanup process. He told the judge he would clean up his messy yard within the 30-day window.
By Friday morning, some progress had been made. A pile of trash, including some broken furniture from Crain’s home, was sitting on the side of the road waiting to be picked up by garbage trucks.
For years, the East Baton Rouge city-parish government has struggled with ways to deal with pervasive blight issues. Problem properties crop up across the parish but particularly plague neighborhoods in north Baton Rouge.
Metro Council members representing the inner city say blight is one of their highest priorities and top constituent complaints. And now, city-parish officials think they finally have started to chip away at the problem by unrolling the new and improved blight court, with stronger teeth for enforcement and a staff of employees who are ready to be deployed to clean up messes when property owners refuse.
Council members are hopeful about the concept but not quite sold, saying they aren’t seeing progress on the ground as quickly as they would like.
Blight, as defined by the city-parish, typically means piles of junk and garbage on properties, including the stashing of broken-down cars. An overgrown property, with grass or vegetation more than 12 inches tall, is considered blighted. And so is a home with a pool that isn’t enclosed by a fence, or if the pool water is so dirty that you can’t see to the bottom. Portable signs and banners and leaving garbage cans by the street can also be considered blight violations.
Justin Dupuy, who is heading the blight elimination efforts for the city-parish, said he gets about 300 complaints a month. From September 2014 to April 2015, there were 1,604 complaints received about blight — of which 1,387 were determined to be credible violations.
Metro Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said she’s pleased by the concept of blight court but feels it’s operating too slowly.
She noted that the court, which meets twice a month to issue judgments for violations, takes up about 30 properties at a time.
“That’s maybe two or three cases per council district,” she said. “I can go through my district at any given time and find 200 code violations. This is only scratching the surface of the problem.”
She said she’d like to see revised ordinances that allow for quicker turnaround times on properties or additional staff to more quickly eliminate the backlog of properties that will require cleanup crews.
“Nobody wants to live next door to overgrown grass or vacant houses that aren’t boarded properly,” Edwards said. “That ends up being a safety issue for those houses next door.”
Of the 1,387 confirmed violations from the past six months, blight court had only taken up about 200 of the cases as of April. Calloway issued 130 judgments fining property owners $125 for the violation and another $100 for court costs.
Another 226 property owners cleaned up the problem when they received their first notice. Those people would not be required to come to court or pay a fine.
Previously, the city-parish compelled property owners to clean up blight by putting a lien on their properties — a relative slap on the wrist for many delinquent property owners.
But in recent months, the department has initiated a variety of changes. Moving forward, the cost of blight violation fees, court costs and the cost the city-parish incurs if it has to go clean up someone’s property for them will be put on the property tax bill collected at the end of every year.
“We’re really just now starting to swing into action,” Dupuy said.
Since September, when the revamped department had its soft launch, the court has issued almost $30,000 in fines and court costs alone. Less than 10 percent, or $2,475, of those fees have been paid.
But the hope is that the agency will be flushed with money in January when people pay their tax bills.
Still, it’s possible that many of the people who own the negligent properties, many of which are vacant, could also bail on paying their property tax bills, Dupuy said.
Starting last past week, Dupuy said, crews have taken to neighborhoods to begin clearing delinquent properties. Right now, there’s a backlog of about 150 properties that need to be cleaned, because the owners have refused.
Many of the properties are vacant lots that have garbage piled up and overgrown grass. Once a judgment is issued, the city-parish has the legal authority to go onto the private property for the purpose of putting it in compliance.
That means frustrated neighbors should begin seeing significant progress in the coming weeks. But Dupuy said he expects the number of violations and the work load to triple in the next few weeks as vegetation grows more quickly in the summer months.
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle also said she thought the city-parish was moving too slowly in its response to blight.
“We have got to come up with more innovative ways to address it, because we just don’t have the manpower,” Marcelle said. “The volume is just too large; they’d have to hire triple the staff that they have.”
Residents with blight complaints should call 311.