MOUNT VERNON — Despite lack of clarity as to what constitutes a vacant commercial property, Mount Vernon City Council gave a second reading to legislation creating a vacant property registry.

Saying he supports the registry 100 percent, Fire Chief Chad Christopher asked council on Monday how to identify a vacant site. Referring to the former JCPenneys store, which is part of a strip mall that has other tenants, he asked, “Does that constitute a vacant section?

“Portions of houses that have a business, for instance the old Lipps Studio, it’s really a home, but there was a business in there, so would that be vacant?” he continued. “You’ve got Flynn’s Guitar Shop. You’ve got the flower shop on back and apartments on top. Is that considered vacant? I don’t think it’s something that should be left up to my opinion. I think it needs to be pretty much in black and white what is vacant and what is not.”

Councilman Chris Menapace, who drafted the initial legislation, said those would be considered individual vacant structures and subject to individual registration and fines. Similarly, the 20 buildings on the Siemens campus would be considered individual structures.

“If I’m the business owner next door in a strip mall, every day that my buddy is vacant, it deteriorates my business,” said Menapace.

Regarding Siemens, he said, “When we are trying to attract tenants to that facility, to that property, it is very rare for us to attract the tenant that will take them all. So in my opinion, what this legislation does is it incentivizes the owner of that property, if we hit him 20 times $400, to get a business in each one of the buildings. Four hundred dollars for just one, for that complex? That kind of goes against the concept of this.”

Law Director Rob Broeren said the current wording, “or any part thereof,” supports Menapace’s view that each storefront is an individual parcel.

“That doesn’t mean that we can’t shift the definition, or the council or administration can adopt a regulation that we’re going to read it as this so that everybody knows how we’re doing it,” said Broeren.

Menapace said it should be council’s charge to have every building adding to city revenue. Councilwoman Nancy Vail said that on the other hand, council does not want to frighten new business away.

“The one thing we need to be careful of is [not] incentivizing business owners to knock the buildings down,” said Broeren. “If we deal with each one of these [Siemens’] buildings as separate, at some point there will be an incentive to remove some of them.”

Councilman Mike Hiller said if Siemens is treated as a whole, the city might end up with another Friendly’s just sitting there empty. He also noted consistency, in that if JCPenney’s and Pat Catan’s are treated as two entities, how could the Siemens’ buildings be treated differently?

Regarding Hiller’s concern about enforceability, Broeren said the legislation is enforceable, but council has to decide how it wants to define a vacant site.

Mayor Richard Mavis mentioned the new three-bay structure that is home to Kay’s Jewelers on Coshocton Avenue. The other two bays are vacant. According to Menapace, those two would be subject to the registry.

“I get that we want to incentivize our capacity, but I’m not sure if this is the incentive we want,” said Councilman Matt Starr. “Is there some other kind of incentive we could do?”

Broeren said council could change the fining mechanism. For new construction, the city could waive the fines or allow a certain amount of time to fill the sites before the site would become subject to vacancy fines.

“There are ways that you can work with the incentives that are there if you wish to do that,” he told council.

Chief Christopher suggested registering every vacant structure for the safety of firefighters with a one-year grace period before the fines kick in.

Another issue Christopher noted is the finances. As written, registry fees and fines run through the fire department. However, the department is not bonded for the higher amounts a building might incur over time.

City Auditor Terry Scott said he thinks it is more appropriate that things go through the city property maintenance officer rather than the fire department. Property owners would complete registration paperwork in the PMO’s office, and then go to Scott’s office to pay the registry fee. Money would go into a separate vacant building registry account which would enable tracking of each property, ease of refunds if needed, and cover the bonding issue.

Broeren asked council members to submit any comments and suggestions to him. He will meet with Vail to clarify the legislation. As of Monday night, he did not feel another committee meeting was necessary at council’s next meeting.

Starr wrapped up the Planning and Zoning Committee meeting by saying he understands the need for safety and the need for a registry.

“I absolutely understand the need for this, but I don’t want punishment to be the only incentive,” he said. “I think that’s my biggest concern.”

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