Vacant properties plan moving ahead in Easthampton

  • Among the vacant properties in downtown Easthampton is this building at 118 Union St. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/14/2022 8:36:37 PM
Modified: 3/14/2022 8:35:56 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Gwynne Morrissey let out a whoop and threw her hands in the air as the City Council Ordinance Committee agreed at a recent meeting to keep moving forward in developing an ordinance that will encourage better use of the city’s vacant properties and help curb economic blight.

“This is so exciting,” said Morrissey, chairwoman of the Economic Development & Industrial Commission.

After generating a list of 17 vacant commercial and industrial properties on Main, Union and Northampton streets downtown, and researching other communities that created a similar bylaw or ordinance, the commission submitted a proposed ordinance to the Ordinance Committee this past year.

The ordinance proposes creating a public registry of vacant commercial properties as a means to help businesses find available space. Properties on the registry would be required to pay a yearly $100 registration fee and would be required to undergo periodic building inspections.

City Council Vice President Salem Derby, who is chairman of the Ordinance Committee, said he would have a document ready to present at a meeting later this month. “This could have a really beneficial impact on the city,” he said.

At the recent meeting, members of the Ordinance Committee and Economic Development & Industrial Commission talked about the difference between a “chronically” vacant storefront and a storefront that might be temporarily vacant. Tom Brown, a member of the commission, described chronically vacancies as properties that have been vacant for years. Businesses that are actively seeking a tenant by working with a real estate agent and posting “for rent” signs in the windows of their properties would be considered temporarily vacant.

“It’s not meant to be punitive or a money-maker for the city,” Brown said of the proposed ordinance. “It’s meant to be an incentive for these property owners to get off the dime and try to get their property rented.”

Brown also noted that he was aware of people trying to reach out to property owners of the chronic vacant properties and not getting a reply.

City Councilor Tom Peake questioned the definition of a vacant property further, asking, “What’s stopping an owner from putting a desk and chair in their office and saying it’s their office?”

Morrissey said that Vonnahme Eye Care Easthampton is a prime example of that. While the business looks active, “it is definitely not,” she said.

“I don’t care if the property owner is making money, but do I want an entire street of that? The idea is that it doesn’t look abandoned or perpetually under construction,” she said.

Derby said the ordinance could define what an inactive storefront is and set criteria that would have to be met stylistically.

Peake also inquired about whether the committee would consider heavier fines for storefronts that have remained vacant for a longer period of time, as well as those that have been vacant so long they are now condemned. He questioned whether a $100 fine would be an adequate incentive for property owners to take action.

Derby suggested creating a tier that details how that yearly registration fee would compound each year it remains on the registry.

“If people stay on the registry, they will end up having to pay more every year,” Derby said.

City Councilor At-Large Lindsey Rothschild agreed with the incremental yearly increase, but advocated for a more robust outreach to all of the vacant property owners. She also spoke to adding a reason for the vacancy on the registry.

“I know that might be more than we need to do, but I also think that building relationships and goodwill and the will to do the right thing, that part of relationship-building is important,” she said.

Brown said that in trying to obtain reasons as to why a property is vacant, the committee could run into challenges of not treating everyone equally.

The committee will reconvene to discuss the proposed vacant storefront ordinance on March 29 at 6 p.m.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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