By Tony E. Windsor

In an attempt to address the safety concerns expressed by a Laurel resident who this past summer brought her concerns to the Mayor and Council, Laurel officials are proposing an amendment to an existing ordinance that deals with “chronic nuisance properties.”

In May, Kim Littleton first shared her frustrations about properties located in the area of the 200 block of West 7th Street, saying she is convinced that activities at the properties presents significant public health and safety issues in her neighborhood.

She told the council that other people in the neighborhood are exposed to regular alleged drug activities, prostitution and fighting. “Please help this neighborhood get back to what was normal only a few years ago,” she urged town officials. “The drug sales and use as well as prostitution has got to go. The landlord and property agent don’t seem to care as long as they are getting their rent payments.”

Littleton returned to a meeting of Laurel Council in June, expressing enhanced frustration that she seems to be getting little support for her request to address problem properties in her neighborhood.

“I have spoken to the town numerous times and I am being told they are working on the problem, but nothing has happened yet,” she said at the June meeting. “I have also called the property manager in Georgetown, and been given no response. As a matter of fact, the property manager has blocked my number so he does not have to hear from me.”

Laurel Town Manager Jamie Smith assured Littleton at that time that the town was actively researching how best to address not only her concerns about problem properties, but others that the town is aware of.

Smith explained that Laurel Police Chief Danny Wright was able to obtain a copy of Delaware’s “property nuisance code.” Smith reviewed the code with Wright and Town Code Director Ken West.

“We liked many parts of the code and I have since talked to the town’s attorney about a same type of ordinance for us,” Smith told the council. “I shared with the attorney a previous nuisance ordinance the town wanted to adopt but did not because it only addressed rental properties. The attorney is going to review both and will provide the town with a type of nuisance ordinance that would address residential and include rental and owner occupied and commercial properties.”

Fast forward to October, and during the Monday, Oct. 18 meeting of Council, Smith has introduced a final proposed “Chronic Nuisance Ordinance.” The ordinance seeks to amend the existing nuisance property ordinance to address those properties that “persistently violate state and local laws and substantially interferes with the public’s interest in enhancing the quality of life and community environment.”

The town however explains up front, while the amendment is a positive step in confronting the nuisance issue, the amendment to the ordinance may not be the “silver bullet” in terms of completely eliminating the threats from some of the issues.

“The Mayor and Council of the town of Laurel find that the sanctions and penalties that may be imposed pursuant to this Chapter constitute an appropriate exercise of the town’s police powers in response to the proliferation of chronic nuisance properties,” according to the language of the ordinance. “By enacting and undertaking to enforce this Chapter, the town, its mayor, Council, agents and employees do not warrant or guarantee the safety, fitness or suitability of any property or area in the town. Owners and occupants should take appropriate steps to protect their interests, health, safety and welfare.”

In her plea for relief, Littleton told the Council that she has had incidents that have left her fearing for her and her family’s personal safety. One such situation occurred when she was accosted by an inebriated woman while taking her dog outside to the bathroom in the early morning hours. The woman had used Littleton’s property as a path to her residence. The incident resulted in Littleton refusing to go outside after dark without her husband accompanying her.

Littleton also shared information about another nearby property owner who is violating rental property rules by allegedly renting out rooms in the upstairs area of her home to migrant workers for $100 per week. This, she said, is a violation of rental rules that prohibit subletting of the property and creates an environment resulting in “ongoing situations of drugs being used and sold as well as drinking and fighting all day and all night.”

Town Manager Smith said she is hoping that in addition to the proposed amendment, that now, post COVID-19, many virus-related restrictions are being lifted, including the town’s ability to once again resume annual rental property inspections. This she feels, will be an additional help to addressing Littleton’s concerns.

The Nuisance Ordinance was presented for discussion at the Oct. 18 Council meeting. Copies of the proposed ordinance are available for review at town hall. The issue will on the Mayor and Council agenda for the Nov. 15 public meeting.