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Newport law takes aim at vacant buildings, yards

Rundown buildings and shabby yards: it's an unsavory reputation that officials in Newport say their city has and that they have long tried to shed.

Now, the city has a new tool to aid its efforts in reversing that perception: an annual vacant building fee that officials say they hope will provide extra incentive to property owners to keep their buildings occupied and up to code.

"It's about getting people to take care of their properties," said Newport City Administrator Brian Anderson

Under an amended nuisance ordinance passed by the City Council last week, the city will begin formally identifying and notifying the owners of vacant or abandoned commercial and residential structures in coming weeks.

Owners then have 90 days to show they're actively attempting to sell, rent or refurbish the property - otherwise, the city will levy a fee of $1,000 against residential properties and $1,500 for commercial buildings. The fees increase in the second year for still-vacant properties: $2,000 for residential structures and $3,000 for commercial.

Anderson said last week the city doesn't have a list of vacant properties.

The vacant building fee isn't intended to be punitive, said City Council member Steven Gallagher, who proposed the ordinance change after hearing complaints from residents about the blight of empty buildings. Rather, he said, it's about spurring property owners to improve their buildings or sell them as a way to spark redevelopment.

"Our city needs to be cleaned up," Gallagher said.

City officials said the ordinance is aimed primarily at commercial property owners - like those empty buildings along Hastings Avenue, the city's main commercial thoroughfare that was hit hard by Highway 61 and Wakota Bridge construction over the past decade. Anderson said banks would be assessed the fee in the case of foreclosed homes.