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Interstate 20 task force seeks to toughen city's ordinances on blight

By Richard Yeakley
April 4, 2013 at 10 p.m.

Many members of the Interstate 20 Corridor Task Force are determined to find a way to crack down on untended or dilapidated buildings in the area.

To do that, the focus of discussion at Thursday's meeting turned to adding teeth into some city ordinances.

"The ways our codes are set up are very minimum standards - unfortunately, ugly is not really one of those standards," said City Manager David Willard. He told the task force that most ordinances of the city are designed to be non-invasive and to allow freedom.

"You can leave a building as long as you secure the building and board the windows up. It can rust, it can be crooked; but unless it gets into such disrepair that it becomes a public hazard, there's not much we can do," he said.

Task force member Robert Crawley said the group should seize the opportunity to address vacant and blighted buildings across the city.

"I lived in Longview in the 70s. There were buildings that were vacant in the 70s that are still vacant today," Crawley said. "Not just on the I-20 corridor, but across the city, too. The mayor created this task force, so he obviously wants to do something about this problem. ... I think the city needs to get aggressive in this area. ... We need to put some teeth into it, so they can't let it set there forever because it hurts the rest of us."

Crawley suggested calling for a city ordinance that would require property owners to maintain the look of non-leased property.

One suggestion for how the process could work is that a building, after being vacant a set number of years, must be inspected and brought back up to code.

"The city, I think, needs to change their code; they need to beef it up," added task force member Joycelyne Fadojutimi.

Willard told the task force that if members proposed a strengthened ordinance, the city could look at the legalities of the suggestion and allow the City Council to decide.

"We can get with our legal department. There are private property rights versus how far city government can go to infringe on those private property rights," Willard said. "We can certainly get with our legal department; we can get as aggressive as the council will let us go."

Task force members also discussed the possibility of an overlay zone after a presentation by City Planner Michael Shirley about the best practices for revitalizing an interstate corridor.

The overlay zone could be fit to whatever criteria the city wants, including landscaping policies or incentives to develop.

"An overlay district is a really customizable tool, and once you define within it, there can be incentives, disincentives … there is a lot of creativity once you define it," said task force Chairman Dale Lunsford.

Task force members discussed the opportunity of using an overlay zone to specify the look and provide incentives to promote growth in a large tract of land west of Estes Parkway south of the interstate.

"And it doesn't affect the underlying land use category, so we are not talking about putting up a planned development where we are dictating what they can and can't do. We are just creating a minimum extra standard or incentive package that is only applicable to them," Shirley said.

Kasha Williams, council liaison to the task force, returned recommendations she gathered from members at the group's last meeting.

City staff combined those recommendations into seven larger goals.

Williams told the task force to spend time before the next meeting to begin thinking of ways to achieve the goals all the members are beginning to embrace.



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