Local eyesores targeted

Published 3:17 am Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: The following article continues an occasional series on building and housing conditions in Beaufort County.
Tom Thompson was showing a prospective economic-development client the local sights when one sight in particular caught the client’s eye — a junkyard at the end of Whichard’s Beach Road.
Thompson, Beaufort County’s economic developer, said the client inquired about the junkyard and a run-down house near the corner of Bridge and Second streets, stark contrasts to the county’s most obvious selling points: the Washington waterfront and the Pamlico River.
Maybe dilapidated properties weren’t a deal-breaker for the French client, but they didn’t help Thompson promote the area’s beauty.
“I guess it would be like Miss America having a blemish on the end of her nose or something, just not very appealing,” he said.
Working through the Miracle Mile Committee, a subcommittee of the nonprofit Beaufort County Committee of 100, the Economic Development Commission and its partners were able to clean up some visually unappealing sites. Some of these sites — the junkyard, old oil storage tanks — straddled the edge of U.S. Highway 17 between Washington and Chocowinity, Thompson said.
“Those are examples of properties which did not flatter Beaufort County and were subsequently removed due to the actions of the Committee of 100 and cooperation of the owners,” he related.
The Miracle Mile group has been working on doing something about the house near Bridge and Second, Thompson noted.
The City of Washington has acquired the house and, with the aid of sought-for grant funds, hopes to convey it to someone who will restore it to its historic character, City Manager James Smith said last week.
Thompson and his colleagues would like to see municipalities do more to clean up the look of the main arteries through which much of the county’s commerce runs.
“We’re constantly trying to find ways to encourage city officials to take action against properties that are in violation of building codes,” he said.
Thompson advocates the adoption of thoroughfare-beautification plans by all of the county’s municipalities.
The plans would contain inventories of eyesores identified by town planners, and would prescribe remedies for remediation of dilapidated properties.
“We would love to see more done in terms of beautification throughout the county, particularly along the thoroughfares,” Thompson stated. “Beaufort County is a beautiful county, and anything that detracts from the beauty of the county … obviously is a point against us.”
According to Paul Spruill, Beaufort County manager, the county has never initiated a formal inventory of structures it believes to be dilapidated or uninhabitable.
The county attempts to assist property owners on a complaint-driven basis, reported Spruill, whose conversation focused mainly on housing.
“Does the county have a problem with dilapidated housing?” he asked. “I think the answer is no more so than anywhere in eastern North Carolina. We likely do need to do a better long-term job in monitoring and addressing dilapidated and abandoned mobile home issues, dilapidated and abandoned structures of all types that rise to the level of a hazard or public safety threat.”
Smith, the Washington city manager, has been working alongside city staff to do something about problem buildings citywide.
But does Smith think enough mechanisms are in place to let the city compile an extensive throughfare-beautification plan?
“Probably not,” he answered. “The economic reality is if the buildings were occupied and we could get the rents up, the landlords could do more with them. Which is not to say that every landlord would act responsibly, but I think most would if they had the opportunity to rent their building and get decent rent.”
Over the past 10 years, the city has done a great deal to improve facades of buildings — largely in the downtown area — using urban-development grant money, Smith shared.
This year, the city appropriated money for some facade improvements, he said.
“What we really need — the uniform building code has a property maintenance code component,” Smith said. “The planning board right now is going through it and is going to be recommending to the city council that the city adopt that property maintenance code.”
Asked about the possibility of implementing a thoroughfare-beautification plan, Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal said, “With our current zoning we basically are managing that situation. We’ve had the ability to manage it for years and it hasn’t been used as effectively as it should have been to bring properties in disrepair and with overgrown vegetation into compliance.”
The town has listed around 50 overgrown lots within its borders, and a number of these lots are owned by people who are delinquent on property taxes, O’Neal said.
The town has started mowing these lots periodically and has sent a list of delinquent properties to the county, setting foreclosure procedures in motion, according to the mayor.
O’Neal said 99 percent of the town’s property owners keep their land in good shape.
“We shouldn’t let that 1 percent bring down the quality of life for everyone,” he added.
And, sure, looks aren’t everything — but they can make a difference in conveying the right impression to people who might make major investments here, Thompson indicated.
“Appearance is extremely important to me and I’m sure to commercial and residential Realtors,” he said. “We’re all impacted by what we see and we form opinions fairly quickly based on first impressions. That’s just human nature.”