'Mothball’ permits aren’t solutions for all blighted sites in Augusta

Augusta screen printer Collin McCoy had purchased, rehabilitated and rented out a vintage 1906 cottage in the 1800 block of Greene Street when he ran into a problem: Vagrants continued to squat in and damage a vacant cottage next door.

The house's owner wasn't particularly concerned about the property and agreed to sell it to McCoy, he said. But around that time, McCoy suffered through a series of bad tenants who curtailed his ability to immediately rehabilitate the new purchase.

Enter Augusta's Licensing and Inspections Department, which offered McCoy the option of a mothball permit.

"The city said I could board it up," he said. "In the next year, year-and-a-half, I plan on getting busy" completing its restoration, he said.

Boarding up a vacant property is the only option for McCoy, who learned the hard way with another rental he owns on Heard Avenue that was between tenants.

"In the three weeks, somebody crawled under the house and removed every bit of copper pipe," he said. "We had to have the entire house replumbed."

A boarded-up house might not be everyone's idea of a good neighbor, but in Augusta's many transitional neighborhoods, it's the only way to go, he said.

"My experience has been if you leave a property even for a few weeks, it's going to get some negative attention," McCoy said.

The city's mothball ordinance came about in 2005 in response to a community outcry to do something other than demolish many of the city's aging, vacant and sometimes dilapidated structures, many of them in historic districts, Licensing and Inspections Director Rob Sherman said.

"It's a way for the property owner to just 'mothball,' or preserve the building for some anticipated future use," Sherman said.

The ordinance started off giving owners the option to keep properties in mothball status for years, but later the Augusta Commission voted to limit that time. Today, a mothball permit is valid for one year, with the option to renew for a second.

In 2008, only 16 properties held mothball permits, but the number has increased since then. Last year, 19 were mothballed, including six at a single mobile home park in the 2000 block of Gordon Highway. So far in 2011, 18 have signed up.

The ordinance is not a panacea for the city's blight, however.

When raised as a possible means of forcing the owners of vacant, but mothballed, Regency Mall to do something with the empty site, officials questioned whether it would hold up in court.

"If it's secured and the second year has passed, what do you do?" Sherman asked. "It's harder for the court to tell them to demolish it; it's harder to tell them to fix it up."

Sherman said his department has not yet attempted to enforce the ordinance against property owners whose stabilized and secured properties have met the mothball criteria for more than two years.

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