DARIEN, Ga. - A thick binder in Darien's community development office holds photos of 100 vacant and dilapidated houses that were part of the city's landscape two years ago.
It also holds photos of vacant lots where about 95 of them were torn down.
The city accomplished the feat by simply enforcing its nuisance ordinances, which require owners to take responsibility for blighted properties, said Darien Community Development Director Frank Feild. Progress wasn't so much a matter of legal tactics as community will, he said.
"We had a city council that supported cleaning up the neighborhood and constituents who wanted it done," Feild said. "Otherwise, our staff would have found it hard to move forward."
It's a change that has transformed the city.
"We had properties that had been unoccupied for 25 to 30 years and were fallen on the ground. If you lived next door, you'd get snakes in your yard, vermin and the mosquitoes would eat you to pieces," Feild said.
"Now you see neighbors putting additions on houses and planting flowers."
With city backing, Darien's code enforcement officer began identifying problem properties 1 and 1/2 years ago and notified owners they were in violation of city code.
Owners were told they could demolish a house, rebuild it or move it out of the city, Feild said.
About 65 percent complied immediately. Others worked with the city to make repairs as they could afford them.
Some ignored the summons and were taken to court, where a judge assessed fines of up to $1,000 per day.
Driving past lots where dilapidated houses once stood, Feild now points to properties cleared of debris, with graded soil and brush kept to a reasonable height. It's land that can be sold and developed.
Not all problem houses are demolished, though.
A 1950s vintage home with a tin roof showed shingled siding that had fallen away in places where wood underneath was rotting and showed termite damage. Branches from a tree were growing into the house.
But, the owner wants to repair the house.
"We're not draconian about this. If people convince us they're to do something about the problem, we work with them," Feild said.
Six months ago, the brush on the lot had grown so high the house was nearly hidden. The owner began by cutting it down.
It still has a way to go to be a safe habitable house, with intact windows that keep bugs out, floors that don't cave in, workable septic drainage, and electrical and heating systems that are free of fire hazards.
"Any house will fall apart quickly if you don't maintain it," Field said.
Darien Mayor Kelly Spratt said fighting blight was an idea that city council members first discussed years ago at an annual retreat.
"We decided we wanted to clean up the city. That would increase investor confidence and improve the morale of the citizens," she said.
Before it could happen, though, the city laid some political groundwork. Darien modernized to a city manager form of government and hired certified professionals for its day-to-day work.
Under the old charter, city council members made decisions on enforcing ordinances, not staff, said Spratt. So, they could be influenced by political pressure. A professionally managed government, separate from the political arm, can apply rules more equally, she said.
Spratt said city progress against blight shows how effective such a system can be.
"Citizens today are more proud than ever to be from Darien," she said. "We've had surprisingly few complaints."