ROXBURY, N.J. – The township is on the verge of cracking down on vacant, unkempt buildings with a proposed ordinance that would require the registration and maintenance of the structures, either by their owners or the banks.

Introduced by the Roxbury Mayor and Council at its Sept. 20 meeting, the proposed “Abandoned or Vacant Residential and Nonresidential Properties and Buildings Pending Foreclosure” ordinance is scheduled for second reading and adoption on Oct. 4.

“I think this is long overdue,” said Roxbury Councilman Richard Zoschak in voting, along with all others on the council, for the measure.

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“I think it’s a good start,” added Roxbury Councilman Gary Behrens.

Township officials stressed the proposed local law should not be construed as a property maintenance code for inhabited homes or active businesses. The ordinance would apply to “any property that has not been legally occupied” for six months and meets one of four criteria:

  • The property is in need of rehabilitation in the reasonable judgment of the zoning officer and no rehabilitation has taken place during that 6-month period
  • Construction was started but  discontinued before completion, leaving the building unsuitable for occupancy, and no construction happened for at least six months
  • At least one installment of property tax remains unpaid and delinquent on the property
  • The property has been determined to be a nuisance by the zoning officer

The ordinance would also define as an abandoned property one that contains both residential and commercial space as long as two-thirds or more of it was once legally used as a residence and none of that residential area has been occupied for at least six months.

A long list of items is included in the proposed law to describe “evidence of vacancy.” For example three months or more of overgrown vegetation, accumulated newspapers and mail, unpaid utility notices and disconnected utilities, broken doors and windows, animal infestation and statements by neighbors, delivery people and government employees.

The ordinance includes a different definition of a vacant, as opposed to abandoned, property.  It says a vacant residential property is one not legally occupied or one where any real construction or occupancy hasn’t taken place for at least three months.

A vacant commercial building is one that hasn’t been occupied or seen construction for three months “and which exhibits evidence of vacancy such that a reasonable person would believe that the property is vacant,” says the proposed ordinance.

Owners of vacant properties will have 30 days, after the vacancy begins or they assume ownership, to register the site with the township. These registrations will have to be renewed annually. Owners of buildings that were vacated before the ordinance is adopted would have 60 days to register them.

After the buildings are registered, their owners will be required to give the township zoning officer access, says the proposed ordinance.

The town proposes charging a $250 registration fee for the first year of structure vacancy or abandonment. That amount doubles in the second year and would be $1,000 in the third and subsequent years, says the proposed law.

A provision of the ordinance is designed to assure that, even if a property is vacant or abandoned, it is not allowed to deteriorate. The law says site owners, or their agents, must keep plumbing, electrical, heating and cooking equipment in good condition. It says structures can’t be used to store junk or garbage or even construction material “intended to be used in the existing property.”

The ordinance includes a long list of items under the heading “safe and sanitary maintenance.” These include keeping in good condition foundations, floors, windows, doors, staircases and roofs in good shape even though the building is vacant or abandoned.

Yards and exterior buildings are included in the upkeep regulations, with the township proposing to forbid tall grass, stored vehicles, strewn debris and animal infestation.

All these provisions come with some teeth. The penalties will be $100 to $2,000 for each offense. “Every day that a violation continues shall constitute a separate offense,” says the proposed ordinance. “Fines assessed under this ordinance shall be recoverable from the owner and shall be a lien on the property.”

The proposed law contains a whole set of provisions to deal with properties involved in foreclosures. It will force banks and mortgage companies to maintain homes and buildings to which they hold title due to foreclosure.