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Owners of vacant properties must register or face fines

6/6/2014, 1:53 a.m.
Owners of more than 10,000 vacant residential properties in DeKalb County now have to secure them and register them with ...
Code Enforcement Administrator Marcus Kellum and officers leave an abandoned house on Quail Court in Decatur on June 4. DeKalb’s Vacant Properties Registry seeks to hold property owners accountable for blighted property. Photo by Ken Watts

Owners of more than 10,000 vacant residential properties in DeKalb County now have to secure them and register them with the county or face thousands of dollars in fines starting in July.

The county’s vacant registry ordinance, signed into law in December, went into effect on June 1. Owners have 30 days to register their properties.

On July 1, county code enforcement officers will start issuing citations to violators, summoning them to DeKalb Recorders Court to face a judge.

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Creekwood Hills Community Association President Johnny Cole, who spoke at the June 4 news conference, said enforcement of the ordinance will help improve the look of neighborhoods.

At a news conference staged in front of an unsecured vacant single-family house on Quail Court in the Columbia Meadows subdivision in Decatur, interim CEO Lee May said the new law is different from the foreclosure registry that went into effect on July 1, 2012.

“A property can be vacant without being in foreclosure,” May said. “Until now, we didn’t have a strategy to hold the owners’ feet to the fire in these kinds of vacancy cases.”

Property owners will pay $100 to register their property with the county.

Interim Police Chief James Conroy said a blighted, abandoned house is a haven where crime can breed and grow.

“Left unmanaged, vacant properties do attract crime,” Conroy said. “We can stop it in the early stages and prevent it from getting worse.”

The ordinance seeks to crack down on property owners who abandon vacant and unsightly residential and commercial {??} properties in neighborhoods.

Police say they’ve found evidence that squatters, criminals and drug users have used the Quail Court house.

The house’s garage door is badly damaged.

Marcus Kellum, DeKalb’s Code Enforcement Division’s director, said it looks like somebody backed into it and knocked out the door frame.

“After that, it was easy to kick down the garage door and get in,” he said. “Inside, the walls are damaged, we found drug paraphernalia, and all the copper wiring’s been stripped.”

Outside, the front yard is overgrown with weeds and littered with liquor bottles.

District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson, who represents the area, said a house in that condition in a neighborhood is a nightmare.

“When you see blight like this, you have to make sure you eradicate it,” he said.

The Vacant Property Registry Ordinance requires owners to register their vacant building with the county for a fee of $100 and designate a local property agent to manage it. Owners who skirt the law are subject to fines of up to $1,000 per violation.

May said the fines are in addition to other penalties assessed for improperly maintained properties that violate county codes.

Tonza Clark, the county’s Foreclosure Registry manager, who also is managing the vacant property registry, said South DeKalb is home to the majority of the vacant properties in the county.

“I can’t give you an exact figure right now on how many of those are in South DeKalb, but I can tell you the majority are,” she said.

Neighborhood residents said the new ordinance will help improve home values and their quality of life.

Joyce Henry, who lives in Columbia Meadows, said the community really needed enforcement.

“The neighbors have done all they can do, but without the law behind us, it didn’t help a lot,” she said.

Johnny Cole, president of the nearby Creek­wood Hills Community Association, said enforcement of the ordinance will go a long way in improving the look of local neighborhoods.

“The community and our leaders are coming on strong and when they get together, things work,” he said.

Kellum, the code enforcement director, said the vacant registry is a tool to help stabilize neighborhoods.

“We can change the face of DeKalb County and improve the neighborhoods,” he said.