Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 2, 2012

Editorial: Town not willing to get hands dirty on blight

Andover homeowners living next to severely blighted properties, you are on your own. If a neighbor turns their property into what looks like a trash dump, don't expect the town to do much to protect your greatest investment, the value of your home.

Knowing this, after more than a decade of seeing a neighbor's messy property deteriorate, Kirkland Drive residents sought an anti-blight law in 2008 that would have addressed residential properties that contain infestations, aren't maintained or have fire hazards. The law said "all premises shall be kept free of collected water, or the accumulations of filth, garbage, junk, waste, rubbish, refuse, trash or any other noxious or offensive materials or substances which may cause a fire hazard or act as a breeding place or provide a refuge for animals, vermin or insects."

Selectmen said blight is too difficult to define, and, since many such properties are owned by compulsive hoarders, a law was unlikely to have much effect. Prior to Annual Town Meeting, selectmen recommended that residents reject the idea. Instead, selectmen instructed the town's attorney to write a memo about how residents could sue neighbors over blight themselves. The bylaw was not approved.

In September 2008 the town health department sent a letter to Andover condominium owner Susan Odle, saying she had five violations of the state's sanitary code, under minimum standards of "fitness and human habitation." The letter ordered Odle to have an interior inspection within 24 hours. By August 2010, two years later, no action had been taken. Condo neighbors asked selectmen to do something in 2010, but Town Counsel Tom Urbelis said the condo association bylaws allow trustees to address issues such as this. Selectmen again took no action, leaving residents to address the issue themselves. They did, through the courts. and in December 2011, Odle's condo was condemned. But Health Director Tom Carbone said this week, it appears Odle simply took the items that filled her condo and dumped all the trash bags onto the front lawn of another property she owns on Osgood Street.

Hoarding is a difficult and complex mental health issue that few have the ability to adequately address. But Andover officials' inability or unwillingness to take action as alleged hoarding situations spin out of control is in amazing juxtaposition to some of the town bylaws they support and enforce.

Andover has bylaws that control the size of signs businesses are allowed to hang — as well as how the signs must be designed, hung and lighted. Certain size signs are not allowed. But Andover is unwilling or unable to control the size of mounds of filled garbage bags on a front lawn?

Parents who want to dish out ice cream sundaes as a fundraiser need to take a special course, or face the health department's wrath. But the health department can't do anything about hundreds of trash bags piled high in a front yard?

People who park in a parking space downtown for even a few minutes beyond the allowed time are well aware of the great likelihood their car will receive a parking fine. How long will the Osgood Street garbage bags be allowed to remain?

Andover residents can only have one unregistered, working vehicle in public view on their property. But hundreds of abandoned trash bags in plain sight cannot be addressed?

In nearly all cases, people deserve the right to do with their property as they see fit. Certainly, government should not interfere or establish rules about aesthetics such as landscaping, paint color, basic clutter, toys in the yard and the like. Neighbors should not be able to force change because someone's property does not fit with the overall "feel" of the neighborhood.

But there must be some base level of sanitation, upkeep and safety required from property owners in society. Eliminating seemingly abandoned, six feet high piles of garbage bags filled with unknown items seems a reasonable place to start.