Officials mull plans to aim for no vacancies in Metuchen

Staff Writer

METUCHEN — Borough officials have taken another step toward seeking to fill vacant businesses in town.

Following the lead of more than 100 municipalities throughout the state, Metuchen officials are considering the adoption of a vacant property registration ordinance (VPRO), which would require owners of vacant properties to register with the borough, paying a set fee for the first year and an increased fee for each subsequent year of vacancy.

“That is a tool that we can use to our benefit as a municipality,” said Councilman Reed Leibfried, who first raised the topic to fellow council members. “I do think it’s a step in the right direction.”

Borough Attorney Denis Murphy brought a draft VPRO to the governing body at its June 15 meeting, at the mayor and council’s request.

Providing the impetus for the measure are vacant commercial properties in the borough, some of which have sat empty for years.

In addition, a VPRO would help to address bank-owned homes that are often left in disrepair, according to Mayor Thomas Vahalla.

As initially proposed, the VPRO would trigger a registration requirement for owners of properties left vacant for six months. The property owner would register and pay an initial fee of $500.

After one year of vacancy, the owner would have to renew the registry and pay $1,500. After two years, the fee would jump to $3,000. For each subsequent year, the fee would be $5,000. Murphy said the fees are on par with those found in other towns.

After discussing the draft ordinance, however, officials decided to shorten the initial vacancy period after which a property owner would be required to register.

“Maybe we ought to consider a threemonth time [period] instead, because say we don’t adopt it until July, you’re talking three months after that, which is … October before this would even kick in for somebody to have to register a vacant property,” Vahalla said.

Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen agreed, saying six months was too long.

The draft ordinance also included a provision for a waiver of the fee for property owners that met three criteria, Murphy said.

For fees to be waived, property owners would have to be up to date with any other municipal fees.

In addition, they would have to show a good-faith effort to rent, lease or sell their vacant properties or storefronts. According to Murphy, proof of this would include having contracts with realtors, running newspaper ads or taking other measures likely to generate interest in the property, and pricing the property in line with similar listings.

The third criteria would be keeping the property up to code and maintained at a level that complies with borough ordinances.

“So if they were doing everything they were supposed to be doing, they wouldn’t be subject to the graduating registration fee,” Murphy said.

Even in cases of waived fees, a property owner would still be required to register, he added.

Leibfried pointed out that some long-vacant commercial properties have signs in their windows bearing a real estate agent’s phone number. Nonetheless, he said, they continue to go tenantless. He questioned whether the rules of the fee waiver would allow such landlords to skate by without paying.

Borough Administrator Jennifer Maier would determine waiver eligibility on a caseby case basis, according to Murphy.

Murphy explained that the proposed ordinance also includes a subsection under commercial properties that applies specifically to vacant storefronts. The reason for the specification is that some storefronts have apartments above them, which could be occupied while the space below remains vacant, he said.

“This is a very hot topic among other towns in New Jersey,” Murphy said. “A lot of towns are utilizing this tool to ensure property maintenance, as well as for safety reasons.”

A VPRO would not only penalize owners of vacant properties. Vahalla pointed out that the registry would help in emergency situations, such as in the case of a fire, because officials would be able to contact the property owners.

Murphy said he would prepare the revised ordinance for introduction at the June 29 Borough Council meeting.