PLAINSBORO: Township toughens ordinance on vacant property maintenance

By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
PLAINSBORO — Overgrown grass and weeds. Shutters hanging by a hinge. Dead or dying trees. Branches ready to fall down.
Those are not common sights around Plainsboro, and the Township Committee wants to keep it that way. That’s why it has amended an existing ordinance to address the issue of vacant properties and their maintenance.
Township Committeeman Edward Yates first raised the issue, and township officials responded, said Mayor Peter Cantu. During the economic downturn, some properties were into foreclosure and their upkeep was often neglected.
“(The ordinance) gives us a little greater leverage on properties that are in foreclosure and (where) the maintenance has been neglected. We have addressed it (through the ordinance),” Mayor Cantu said.
The amended ordinance calls for the property owner to be notified of violations, such as overgrown brush and weeds, tree stumps, and accumulations of garbage, trash and debris on the outside of the house, as well as rotted or deteriorated conditions on the building itself.
The property owner will be given time to make the needed repairs. If the owner does not comply, the township can perform the maintenance or remediation and bill the owner for the cost of the work.
Plainsboro Township already inspects properties when they change hands — either through sales or rentals — and that means the housing inspectors are “in the field,” said Lester Varga, the township’s director of planning and zoning.
“While the inspector is in the field, the inspector may notice (another) property’s condition, or it may be brought to our attention by a passer-by,” Mr. Varga said. “It seemed like a logical extension of duties to enforce ‘zombie’ properties. We are dealing with only a few properties. They are few and far between.”
A building might be vacant or abandoned, or it may have gone into foreclosure, Mr. Varga said. The lender who called for the foreclosure may forget to have the grass mowed or to otherwise maintain the property. While such violations were reported to the Middlesex County Health Department, the revised ordinance allows the township to step in.
The township’s inspectors are required to inspect a property after being notified of potential violations. The inspection takes place within 10 working days after notification. A report is prepared that lists the violations and also gives the owner a deadline to make the repairs.
“The ordinance is geared toward abandoned property and gives the town the ability to bring the issue to the property owner’s attention and have them correct it,” Mr. Varga said. “It allows the township to intervene and contact the property owner sooner. The sooner it is brought to the owner’s attention, the sooner it can be fixed.”
Mr. Varga said it is “not a big problem in terms of frequency. The problem comes up when a situation is brought to our attention, and there was very little that Plainsboro Township could do to remedy the situation.” 