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Board to look at hazards of empty homes

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- Commissioners will examine changes to existing ordinances this year, including imposing architectural requirements for new homes and addressing hazardous houses sitting empty.

At the strategic planning work session held over the weekend, Development Services Director Scott Sirotkin told commissioners that with more homes sitting empty due to the downturn in the market, the county is receiving more complaints about safety hazards. Chairman Kathy Morgan echoed that, saying there are reports that children are entering some of the homes, and illicit activities are going on as well.

The ordinance addressing such issues is ambiguous and broadly written, Sirotkin said. The county has no housing code; homes fall under the building code until a certificate of occupancy is issued. The county also does not get involved in complaints by tenants regarding landlords, he said.

Property owners have three options: Repair the structure, board and close it, or demolish it. Sirotkin said most gravitate toward boarding the homes because that's cheaper, but, "That doesn't always please the neighbors. It's not aesthetically pleasing and there are concerns about property values going down."

Commissioners will have to decide whether to leave the choice up to the property owner or if the county should be more involved.

Also, Zoning Administrator Branin Burdette proposed implementing architectural standards for new homes. Compared to adjacent counties Henry, Morgan and Walton, Newton is lacking when it comes to architectural design parameters, he said. Newton also has a higher minimum required heated floor space of 1,800 square feet. Burdette recommended commissioners modify the zoning code to allow smaller heated floor space, requiring an average size within a neighborhood to encourage developers to build small and large homes within the same subdivision.

Presently, the only inspection for new homes is through the building inspector; Burdette said an architectural review is needed.

Burdette made several recommendations on new architectural standards, including creating incentives for builders to not use vinyl siding. For example, Newton County requires that a portion of the front facade be materials other than vinyl, if the remainder of the structure is vinyl. Burdette said that requirement could be removed if vinyl is not used and certain architectural features are added, such as porches. Those who still opt to use vinyl would be required to construct 50 percent of the front facade with other materials such as brick and masonry.

Burdette also recommended requiring that garages be located away from the front facade; currently Newton County does not regulate garage placement. Also, presently every home in a subdivision could be identical under the zoning ordinance. Burdette suggested commissioners adopt new regulations that would limit a design or its mirror image to no more than 20 percent of lots within a subdivision So, for example, at least five different designs would be used in a 100-lot subdivision.

"The hope is that instances of cookie cutter design with poor quality material will eventually go away," he said.

The next step will be to talk with developers for input. Burdette said he hopes to have a draft for the board to review by June.