Our Opinion: To knock out blight, consider voluntary beautification effort

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Wilson’s city leaders are working to stamp out blight and bring dilapidated properties up to code. Enforcement is a key part of the equation, but it need not be the only answer.

At last week’s Wilson City Council work session, District 2 Councilman Michael Bell suggested increasing the fine for city code enforcement to $250 if staff have to make more than two visits to a home or business.

“I believe that we’ll always have blight,” Bell said. “However, we’ll always have the responsibility also to do something about it.”

Under Wilson’s current unified development ordinance, property owners receive a notice of violation and do not have to pay a fine if a violation is corrected within the time period specified in the notice.

Uncorrected offenses trigger a citation with a $50 fine and a requirement to correct the issue within 10 days; then a $100 fine and another 10-day correction period. The third and subsequent citations carry a $200 fine for each day the violation continues to exist.

The graduated fine structure already in place seems reasonable. Whether Bell would increase the third citation penalty from $200 to $250 or count the second citation as the third “visit” and hike that $100 fine to $250, such a cash grab is likely to cost the city goodwill without substantially increasing compliance.

Blight is a problem that Wilson officials are wise to address. Vacant, boarded-up homes dot city neighborhoods and the hulking shells of long-abandoned businesses rot like commercial cavities. We don’t begrudge our councilmen and city code enforcement staff their frustration.

It’s worth remembering, however, that sometimes a carrot works just as well as a stick.

Perhaps Wilson could benefit from a beautification program that incentivizes redevelopment, recognizes stakeholders who take pride in their properties and connects low-income and elderly residents with resources to fix code violations at a reduced cost before saddling them with fines.

Some North Carolina cities and towns award Yard of the Month honors to recognize well-manicured properties. Winners are loaned a small, tasteful sign to display in their yard until the next month, when a successor is chosen and the traveling sign is passed along. Such programs promote community pride and inspire a cordial competition among neighbors.

If the Wilson Appearance Commission chose to start a positive recognition program such as Yard of the Month, we’d be all too glad to publish photos of the monthly winners in The Wilson Times.

Uncut grass can be a bugaboo on streets of otherwise well-manicured lawns, and it can even pose hazards if the grass grows so high that it provides a habitat for snakes and varmints. To correct the problem, take some time to diagnose the cause — does the lawn belong to an absentee owner who’s neglecting the property or an elderly resident who can’t cut the grass because of ill health and can’t afford market-rate landscaping services?

In the latter case, local charities could cover the cost of mowing and trimming or churches could provide youth volunteers to cut the grass if neighbors won’t step up to the plate.

Either the appearance commission or a nonprofit beautification group could raise seed money to award need-based grants for small home improvement projects that bring owner-occupied properties up to code.

Neighborhood groups could organize semi-regular community cleanups to purge litter and trash from yards, streets and public rights of way.

We don’t want Wilson to be a place where rundown properties are allowed to fester, but we also don’t want it to become a caricature of overzealous enforcement like those busybody homeowners’ associations that routinely make headlines for conniption fits over American flags, pink flamingo lawn ornaments and creative mailbox decorations.

We want to live in a Wilson where responsible homeowners are recognized, community members pitch in to help the poor and elderly when they fall behind on household maintenance and code enforcement action is reserved for the egregious cases that truly warrant it.

If that’s the Wilson our city councilmen want, they can work to make it a reality through a neighborhood beautification program.