Local government leaders say more needs to be done to enhance Liberty County’s appearance in order to entice a greater number of visitors and convince potential residents and businesses to settle here.
These initiatives also would improve the quality of life for current residents and existing businesses, they said. Officials agree that unkempt properties, vacant commercial buildings and less-than-inviting gateways to the county don’t convey the message they want to communicate — that Liberty County and its cities have much to offer.
City manager: Poor yard maintenance ‘cancerous’
Hinesville City Manager Billy Edwards said the major blight problems in Hinesville and Liberty County are not dilapidated housing, but poor property maintenance — tall grass, weeds, multiple cars on blocks and carports filled with junk.
“These things are not always black and white,” said Edwards, explaining sometimes people fail to maintain their yards due to sickness or military deployment. “(Nonetheless), these things tend to have a cancerous effect on the surrounding properties if left unresolved. (Poor property maintenance) can lower property values in that neighborhood, which lowers revenue from property taxes.”
Edwards said the city is not being idle about the issue, noting the inspections department has been busy inspecting neighborhoods for poor property maintenance.
“I can tell you our inspections department is very aggressive in pursuing property maintenance,” Edwards said. “During February, (the inspections department) took on 114 cases. I believe 91 of these cases were initiated by the department, though some were based on complaints from neighbors.”
“(What the city can do) depends on the severity of the problem on a property,” Edwards said. “If it poses an immediate public-safety problem, we can do something right away — within reason. It depends on the circumstance. Usually, the abatement process can take some time.”
Collaborating on area improvement
County and city leaders met last Wednesday at the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission office to discuss community-appearance issues. Hinesville Assistant City Manager Ken Howard updated officials on grants available for neighborhood revitalization, suggesting that the county and cities collaborate on community-improvement initiatives.
Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette, Riceboro Mayor Bill Austin, Walthourville Mayor Daisy Pray, Flemington Mayor Pro-Tem Paul Hawkins, Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, LCPC Executive Director Jeff Ricketson, Edwards and Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown listened as Howard briefed them on the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing program.
Howard said if the county and cities collaborate and apply for GICH funds together, that could help the community better compete for the grant because this type of collaboration never has been done before.
“I feel there are issues common in each of the communities,” he said.
GICH is a three-year program that provides communities with technical assistance in drafting and implementing a plan to improve housing and revitalize neighborhoods. This assistance involves collaboration, expert presenters, training, facilitation, consensus building, networking and mentoring.
Howard said local leaders can begin the application process now in order to apply for the GICH grant. The program timeline begins in June. Potential grant applicants would attend a resource session at the annual Georgia Municipal Association in Savannah. In July, team members must attend an informational webinar and submit a letter of intent to apply. In September, the written application must be submitted. In October, program facilitators conduct a site visit to finalist communities. The grant recipients are announced in November, and grantees would attend a retreat the following February.
Local leaders said they could mention the program at the countywide planning session scheduled for April 23-25.
Howard said Hinesville has been successful in revitalizing neighborhoods in the past, citing the city’s Azalea Street redevelopment project.
Edwards and Thomas explained that Hinesville is an “entitlement” community, which qualifies the city for U.S. Department of Urban Development grant money.
The Hinesville Downtown Development Authority, in partnership with the city, built affordable housing for low-to-moderate-income families on Azalea Street after a 2001 study recognized the area as one of Hinesville’s “worst” in terms of substandard housing. The project was funded with money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program.
Edwards cautioned community leaders not to focus solely on housing and advised them to broaden their perspective to include the whole community. He cited examples of abandoned houses and barns that can be seen from the road on Highway 84 and other areas.
Lovette stressed he wanted to be sure that the county’s gateways “from Riceboro to Walthourville” would be included in any community-improvement plans, because these gateways are what visitors and potential residents and businesses see first.
Property maintenance, code enforcement
Improving the community’s appearance has been a hot topic among leaders for some time.
Lovette convened an ad hoc committee last year, following the May 2013 countywide planning session, to address community-appearance issues and then invited local mayors to discuss the committee’s findings. The committee reviewed county and city of Hinesville ordinances regarding property maintenance and the enforcement of those codes.
In a memo dated Nov. 26, 2013, Lovette said the committee concluded that the International Property Maintenance Code and the International Existing Buildings Code currently in effect countywide are sufficient “to ensure adequate maintenance of properties within Liberty County’s neighborhoods. However, more rigorous enforcement of these codes holds the most promise for meaningful improvement of the appearance of neighborhoods.”
Brown said the county has tried to improve scenic by-ways in an effort to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the county’s gateways.
“The effort proved to be a success in working with property owners to clean up what were older mobile homes and abandoned autos,” he said. “In that instance, results were achieved without actually issuing citations but rather by connecting residents with metal dealers who would remove the eyesore for return of its value in the market. At this point, we primarily focus on complaints from adjacent property owners.”
Brown said the county has an ordinance in place that allows officials onto private property to clean up a nuisance area, but only after certain processes are followed.
“In that instance, we would work with scrap dealers in an effort to remove what they could, clean the area most likely though contract, and then place a lien on the property for sums expended,” he said.
Brown said the county’s code-enforcement officer investigates nuisance complaints and then brings the matter to a hearing officer — Brown — if there’s sufficient evidence a problem exists.
“Following a hearing, a decision is rendered, which usually specifies an amount of time for the matter to be taken care of,” Brown explained. “If, at the end of that time, the matter has not been satisfied, then more time may be granted or an order may be issued recommending enforcement action to the full board of commissioners.”
The commission then would vote to uphold, deny or alter the recommendation of the hearing officer, according to Brown. He added that some matters are prosecuted through Magistrate Court of Liberty County.
“In those cases, the alleged violator is cited by the enforcement officer and then scheduled for court if they do not comply,” he said.