Farmington council to staff: Get tougher on persistent code violations

Farmington officials on Monday gave city staff members a clear directive: Get tougher on business owners who leave buildings vacant and unkempt.

The discussion started last month when mayor Bill Galvin complained about the former Hershey’s Ice Cream store on Farmington Road, vacant for several years. The owner of an adjacent restaurant leased the space in order to expand, but has not pulled permits to begin necessary renovations, Economic and Community Development Director Kevin Christiansen said.

Meanwhile, the store’s dust-covered windows have long exposed a space littered with equipment and other items. Christiansen said the city has begun court proceedings to force code compliance, but council member Greg Cowley said the case has lingered far too long.

“We cannot sit for another summer and watch the garbage pile up,” he said.

Cowley complained that customers who sit on the patio of his family’s restaurant on Grand River have a clear view of the building and ask him what is wrong with Farmington. He said the city has a “fiduciary duty” to protect the value of the central business district.

“I’m looking for a little tougher code enforcement,” he added.

City manager David Murphy said Farmington has only eight “problem children” among its hundreds of business properties.

“That is fantastic,” he said. “I think you have more tools than most municipalities do.”

Anticipating problems with the economic downturn, the city in 2009 beefed up its zoning ordinances. Tools available include a property maintenance code and ordinances that address vacant buildings and blight.

Murphy said code enforcement officer John Koncsol works with business owners, even those the city has sued, to clean up properties, but there’s nothing the city – or any municipality – can do to force owners to fill vacant properties.

City attorney Thomas Schultz said district court judges want to see a long record of efforts to work with businesses before taking them to court. And council member Sara Bowman said she didn’t want Farmington to become known as a city that “strong arms” tenants.

Council member Steven Schneemann suggested a different approach, one he believes would have business owners beating a path to the doors of those vacant buildings.

“I think we need to make our community vibrant and attractive and businesses will want to locate here,” he said.