The Lewisville City Council unanimously passed a new ordinance on Sept. 18 aimed at the owners of vacant buildings.
Intended to prevent the nuisance and hazards associated with abandoned buildings, the ordinance requires annual registration, proper maintenance and hefty liability insurance.
The new law also requires the owners allow mandatory city inspections and provide a criminal trespass affidavit to allow police to remove vagrants or squatters.
Failure to register a vacant building with the city and comply with the ordinance can result in a misdemeanor criminal charge and a fine of up to $2,000 per day.
The city has its share of vacant buildings, for example the grocery store on Main Street where Albertsons used to be, the old Wolfe Nursery building on I-35, or the cluster of businesses around I-35E and Hebron Parkway. There and at other places along I-35, TxDOT has taken or plans to take some of the land for highway expansion. That has left some properties in limbo, with owners unwilling to invest or tenants unwilling to lease for buildings that could be condemned. On Edmonds Lane, the former Cimmaron Living Center nursing home sits empty. At various times, police have dealt with trespassers on these properties. Neighbors may see these properties deteriorating and view them as a liability.
Councilman TJ Gilmore said the council had been trying to get the ordinance done for the better part of the year.
“What I like about it that’s unique is that we are trying to push owners to do something with their properties and not just let it sit and rot,” said Gilmore.
Under the ordinance, a building or home is considered vacant when it is not legally occupied by someone with a right to be there. A multi-tenant building like a shopping center, mall or apartment complex is considered vacant if 75 percent or more of the total floor area is not legally occupied. The city presumes a building vacant if all uses have ceased for more than 90 days.
According to assistant city manager Claire Swann, who presented the ordinance to the city council in workshop session, the goal of the program is to ensure that vacant buildings are maintained to minimize negative impacts on the health, safety and welfare of the public. The registration will allow for tracking of properties and improved enforcement.
The city does allow some limited exceptions. The ordinance does not apply to vacant homes or buildings where there is a valid open building permit for construction, remodeling or repair.
The ordinance also does not apply to properties which are being actively marketed for sale or lease, and which is being regularly advertised. Likewise, if a property is under a contract for sale or lease, the ordinance does not apply. But these two exceptions last for six months after the property first becomes vacant.
“If the property is on the market, we’re not going to do anything to beat you up for six months while it’s being sold — it doesn’t count as abandoned if it’s being actively sold for a six month window,” Councilman TJ Gilmore said. “If you have a permit pulled to do construction or do some type of work on it, that again is a get-out-of-jail-free card, and we will not consider the building abandoned.”
Gilmore said it was the absentee owner that is not doing anything with their property that the city wanted to have a conversation with.
“Hey, you know if you’re not going to maintain it then either sell it or put some money into it,” Gilmore said.
Once a property becomes vacant, the owner has 30 days to register it with the city and pay a $75 initial registration fee. Each year thereafter before Oct. 31, owners must re-register if the property remains vacant.
The registration form includes name and address for each owner, and the name and contact information for a local agent who can provide access to the building on request. The city also requests a floor plan for the building, a plan of action for the use of the property and the owner’s maintenance schedule.
Another item the city requests, but cannot legally require is a trespass affidavit, which allows police to enforce trespassing laws against squatters and vagrants illegally on the property. The city currently already uses voluntary trespass affidavits for various properties around town, Swann said.
“Under the law, we must provide property owners with the right to opt out of signing these criminal trespass affidavits,” Swann said. “That being said, we don’t expect many will opt out.”
Swann said that of all the provisions in the ordinance, the criminal trespass affidavit will likely be the most welcomed by vacant property owners.
Along with the registration, owners will have to obtain liability insurance for the property. Liability insurance pays others for damages resulting from the owner’s property. Swann explained the city’s thinking:
Our interest in focusing on liability insurance is to protect neighboring property owners. For example, let’s say a home next door to yours is vacant. Due to the absent owner’s neglect, a large dead tree sits in their front yard, leaning ominously towards your property. When that tree falls on your car or injures one of your family members, we want to make sure that you can file a claim. We want to make sure that you — the citizen who is living or working day in and day out in our community — are protected.
Owners of commercial property are required to obtain policies with a $2 million annual limit, and name the City of Lewisville as an additional insured. Residential property owners have to obtain $500,000 in coverage. Both must provide the city with certificates of insurance every six months.
Swann said the insurance requirements were modeled after ordinances from other cities in the metroplex, and that the insurance amounts were recommended by the city’s risk management consultants.
Johnathon Allread, owner of Texas Family Insurance, told The Lewisville Texan Journal that not all insurers would insure a vacant home or offer liability coverage of $500,000. He said that coverage for a vacant building would most likely start at about 50 percent higher premiums than the same coverage for one that is occupied.
Allread said that most insurance carriers would not offer liability coverage unless they are also insuring the property itself. He recommended that property owners check with their agent or insurance company regarding their coverage if their property should become vacant.
The city wants property owners to maintain the property in a clean, safe, secure and sanitary condition. The ordinance requires any fire safety systems to remain operational during vacancy, and that buildings are kept secure and locked.
The ordinance requires a yearly inspection by the fire marshal to determine compliance and requires that the owner schedule one within 60 days of registration. The initial and yearly inspections cost the property owner $25. If a building fails an inspection, the city will reinspect and charge another $25. The ordinance requires property owners to grant access to their building or face misdemeanor charges. The city will obtain a warrant to inspect properties that owners refuse access to.
Violations under the ordinance are subject to a fine of $2,000 for each offense. The ordinance says that each day an offense continues constitutes a separate offense.
Gilmore said the ordinance is not about hitting owners with fines. If it were, he’d have a problem with it.
“If the owners are talking with us and making progress, we’re going to work with them,” Gilmore said. “It’s not about slapping penalties, it’s about getting compliance.”
The ordinance takes effect 10 days after official publication, which would be the first week of October.