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Battling Blight: Committee working on remediation plan to present to county

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  • BATTLING BLIGHT
    Junk cars are a target of Blight Committee members and a violation of the county’s ordinance depending on the number of vehicles and visibility. CONTRIBUTED
  • BATTLING BLIGHT
    Dilapidated houses are a danger to the community as well as being unsightly and a detriment to property values. CONTRIBUTED
  • BATTLING BLIGHT
    Jones County’s Blight Committee members at their July 8 meeting held at the W.E. Knox Center to aid in social distancing. DEBBIE LURIE-SMITH/Staff

Jones County’s Blight Committee held its first in-person meeting since the pandemic shutdown with a renewed passion to defeat blight in the community.

The meeting was held July 8 in the conference room at the W.E. Knox Center under the leadership of committee chairman Frank Duke.

The term blight covers a large number of issues — vacant lots, abandoned buildings and houses in derelict or dangerous shape, as well as environmental contamination.

Blight can also refer to smaller property nuisances that creep up on cities and counties, such as overgrown lawns, discarded tires, junk cars, uncollected litter and other signs of neglect.

The Jones County committee is looking at all of that and working on a presentation of its Blight Remediation Action Plan to the Board of Commissioners with a plan of how to work on the complex issue, aided by Holly Whorton with the Middle Georgia Regional Commission.

Commissioner Sam Kitchens was in attendance at the meeting.

Jones County’s Environmental Officer Tiffany Davis was also at the meeting. She has been working on the blight issues during her 17 years with the county, although those issues are only a portion of her job. Jones County already has ordinances to address most of the issues.

The Solid Waste ordinance is Section 62-31 through 62-42 in the Jones County Code, and Abandoned and Dilapidated Buildings are covered in Section 18-226 through 18-231.

The Jones County Code of Ordinances is accessible on the county’s website, jonescountyga.org, under the Government tab.

Reactive system

The biggest issue in the fight against blight is not the need for ordinances but the requirement for violations to be reported before they can be addressed. That is largely because of the staff of one, Davis, to address the issues.

To operate on a proactive basis, rather than the current reactive basis, would take a staff of dozens to cover Jones County.

The meeting started with discussions about the possible use of a private scrapping company to address junk cars and a software that caught the interest of a couple of the committee members.

Whorton attempted to keep the meeting on track and reviewed information from the previous committee meeting which was a virtual online meeting. She said ideas from the meeting were neighborhood cleanups, scrap tires, a litter prevention campaign, adopt a road program, several of which are already in place.

Committee member George Scoville stated that blight creates crime, and he asked what could be done with dilapidated houses. Davis said the county has torn down several dilapidated houses, but it usually does not come to that.

The environmental officer said the first step to that process is for someone to file a complaint and that can be done anonymously.

Committee member Bonnie Duke said the bottom line is the county is reactive to complaints, and Davis said that was correct.

Frank Duke asked about the fines for blight, and Davis said each case is different. She said fines begin at $250.

The officer explained that the goal was not the number of tickets written but results in solving the problems.

“The less tickets you write, the better. That means you are getting cooperation from the property owners,” she said.

Duke said he was having a problem cracking the blight problem, and committee member Rick Tipton said he cannot find a money trail.

Davis said the majority of tickets are taken care of before the case goes to court.

Kitchens explained that the environmental officer keeps a log of complaints and how the complaints are taken care of.

“I will say we need stiffer fines for littering,” the commissioner said. “The Board of Commissioners is not focused on tickets but completing complaints.”

Duke said some complaints had been answered by putting up a fence with the junk cars stacked behind the fence.

Davis said one residence out in the county has 10-15 cars that are legally licensed, sitting in the front yard, but nothing can be done about licensed vehicles.

Scoville asked how fines could be changed, and Davis said the fines are set by the judge.

Bonnie Duke said 80 percent of people are not going to complain because they are scared. She said that is the reason the county needed to be reactive to violations so the environmental officer could do her job without a complaint.

Whorton said that suggestion would be put in the report, but it needed to be understood that changing to a proactive system would be expensive. She suggested the committee could help teach people how to file a complaint by developing educational materials.

Scoville said the committee could be organized to make the complaints.

Kitchens said that could cause a problem.

“We can’t authorize the public to do a government job,” he said.

Davis said the majority of what needs to be cleaned up in Jones County could be done with the existing ordinances.

“The steps are there. It starts with a complaint,” she said. “It’s taken years for it to get this bad; it’s going to take a while to fix it.”

Frank Duke said, in his opinion, most of the litter is because of trash blowing out of the back of pickup trucks.

Kitchens agreed but said it is hard to find the litterer when it is coming out of the back of the truck. He said the only way to fix it is to make it a herd mentality and get 80 percent of the people behind the effort.

“Litter is my pet peeve,” he said.

Keep Jones Beautiful Director Vicki Bilderback said, during the past few years, Kitchens has brought in the most trash and had more participation during the community cleanups.

Kitchens suggested, when the Blight Remediation Action Plan was ready to be presented to the Board of Commissioners, a work session would be called to give the committee plenty of time for the presentation.

Background

The Blight Committee had its first meeting Sept. 19, 2019. The committee has seven members, and the first meeting included Zoning Officer Tim Pitrowski and Davis to provide information and their expertise.

After that meeting, the committee requested the assistance of the MGRC and the commissioners agreed to that request. Duke said Whorton and Greg Bioke had been working with the committee.

The chairman said the committee members were given an app for their phones from the MGRC. He said the members divided the county into sections and, using the phone app, were able to mark the locations of places with junk cars, dilapidated buildings, trash and litter and even what the members deemed improper businesses.

Committee members marked 653 locations containing junk cars, 233 dilapidated buildings, 208 trash and litter and 22 locations of improper businesses. Duke said committee members covered about 95 percent of the county.

The MGRC was able to take those locations and place them on a colorcoded map.

Blight patterns were identified in Haddock, Griswoldsville and Joycliff, Clinton, Greene Settlement Road and the City of Gray.