FRONT ROYAL– By a voice vote of 6-0 on Monday night, January 8, the Front Royal Town Council began the process of removing the Rental Inspection District and its specific protections of town renters from the proposed Property Maintenance Code.
Chris Morrison’s motion to approve the first reading of the combined code failed by a 0-6 voice vote. During an adjournment in the January 8 meeting Morrison, who has been council’s chief advocate of adding town legal protections for renters, explained his “no” vote.
“You know what’s going on here; you were at the work session last week. I have to work with what I know can pass,” Morrison said. By joining the “no” votes, Morrison would be able to re-introduce the renter protections part of the failed ordinance at a future date when passage would seem more likely. The council majority has made it clear it plans to reintroduce the Property Maintenance portion of the ordinance proposal without the rental district.
Work session discussion on January 2 indicated a council majority did not support the rental inspection district or the costs associated with enforcement. During a July 2017 work session Mayor Tharpe estimated an annual cost of as much as $150,000 to create a position to oversee requested inspections and enforcement where violations existed. “We’ll see if our council will belly-up with a tax increase,” Tharpe said at the time. The eventual answer was “no”.
During the discussion six months ago Councilman John Connolly pointed out that revenue from one-cent of a past real estate tax hike had already been committed to fund a position that could handle such duties. Each penny of town real estate tax produces about $105,000, so another half penny hike could fund the position.
But in the immediate future, renters with serious complaints about the condition and circumstance imposed by some landlords will have to hope that the Property Maintenance Code portion of the proposed ordinance can be applied to assuring some basic living standards are provided to town renters. That appears to be Councilman Morrison’s hope in the short term
During a September 25 public hearing after which council tabled action on the proposed code, a number of renters at a highly visible property at 122 South Royal Avenue, described horrid conditions which several believe contributed to at least one’s respiratory health issues. The owner of that property, described as retired Doctor Mir Batouli of Great Falls, is one of a number of out-of-the-area landlords cited as perhaps less interested in basic maintenance than maximizing profits from their properties.
Several locally-based landlords spoke in favor of increased protections against absentee-landlord abuses, but also expressed concerns about some aspects of the code. Those concerns included inadvertent punishment of conscientious landlords for minor issues; or impacts on adjoining properties from declaring offending properties such as described by tenants of 122 South Royal Avenue as “blighted”.
Speaking in support of the code, former council candidate Linda Allen pointed out that landlord abuses generally target the community’s most vulnerable citizens. Those are citizens not in a position financially to either file civil actions or just up and move.
Another local landlord, C & C Frozen Treats owner William Huck, told council, “It is not a matter of if, but a matter of when you pass this.” Apparently the “when” involves a council willingness to add a half cent to the local real estate tax to fund enforcement.
And facing a 2.8-cent tax hike over the next six years to fund current or pending capital improvements like the new police headquarters, walking trails, sidewalks and physical improvements to historic downtown business district properties, the “when” remains in doubt. The Town’s current real estate tax rate is 13-cents per $100 of assessed value.
Suggested alternative methods of rental property enforcement suggested by another local landlord, David Silek, were cited by Town Attorney Doug Napier as unfeasible under existing legal definitions. Those alternatives included criminal prosecution under public nuisance or public health statutes. See related story: Town attorney responds to rental inspections questions
Reintroduction of the Property Maintenance Code sans the Rental Inspection District can proceed immediately following the first-reading vote against the joint ordinance. On January 2, Town Attorney Doug Napier explained that no second reading vote would be required once the first reading approval failed. Council has authorized re-advertisement for a new public hearing on the Property Maintenance Code, sans the Rental Inspection District.