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Groton City cleaning up its act with blight rules

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published July 10. 2014 4:00AM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Ralph Abbott Jr. serves customer Dan Coan a Del's Frozen Lemonade at Ralph's Coffee & Donut Shop on Thames Street in Groton City Tuesday.
Property owners responsive to three new ordinances

Groton — City leaders have passed three ordinances since March to crack down on people who allow their properties to become dilapidated or unsightly. At the same time, businesses are investing in downtown, bringing some new life to the area.

"I'm talking about neighborhoods looking crisp again and people taking pride in where they live," City Mayor Marian Galbraith said.

"I'm taking a chance, because I honestly believe in what's happening," said Ralph Abbott Jr., who opened Ralph's Coffee & Donut Shop six months ago at 245 Thames St. There was a time the street was nearly abandoned, he said.

Now he sees parents buy ice cream at his shop and walk with their children to a nearby park on the river. Ralph's also has a location on Eastern Point Road that serves customers at Electric Boat and a truck that travels.

The growing new life on Thames Street has coincided with the reconstruction of the street and, more recently, the check on blight.

In March, the City Council approved an ordinance that allows the city to fine property owners $100 per day if their homes and yards become blighted and they fail to clean the properties after being notified in writing. Those who "willfully" violate the ordinance could face criminal penalties of up to $250 a day.

The ordinance defines blight as buildings deemed "dilapidated," fire hazards and those inadequately maintained, including properties with missing, broken or boarded-up windows, yards strewn with appliances, furniture and car parts and structures with collapsing or missing walls and roofs.

The ordinance also applies to unregistered, abandoned cars and boats left longer than 30 days.

In April, the council also passed an ordinance to stop people from dumping large trash items in the street. Groton City offers free pickup for large waste such as old furniture, but only by appointment. Galbraith said some landlords and tenants were not complying but simply tossing apartment contents outside. The ordinance would fine violators $100 per day for such dumping.

"We always give them the option to clean it up first. But we are using enforcement where we need to," Galbraith said.

The third ordinance, passed within the last few weeks, requires property owners to notify the city when they move but continue to own city property, so they may be contacted. More than half of Groton City's landlords live elsewhere.

About eight people have been spoken to or received letters regarding blight so far, said Carlton Smith, the City of Groton's building and zoning official. Nearly all have complied, he said. Police have also spoken to people, he said.

"People have cleaned up abandoned cars and boats just because the police let them know we had an ordinance," Smith said.

Paul Duarte, a former city councilor, said he supports blight ordinances even though blight tends not to be an issue in his neighborhood. Duarte lives on Cottage Street, a road with neatly mowed lawns, gardens and window boxes with flowers. But at one time, the street also had an old boat with a tree growing through it.

"It just gives the government an instrument to take care of the issue," he said of the rules. "People are always going to the government and saying, 'Why aren't you doing something about it?'"

His neighbors are investing in their homes, he said. A contractor recently worked on two houses on the street and a third neighbor is installing a new roof.

"People with the means to fix their houses are fixing their houses," Duarte said.

On Morse Avenue, the situation was more complicated. Galbraith said a house with a near-collapsing roof was in foreclosure, but the process wasn't complete. Still, the city was able to intervene and stabilize the building.

Tiffany Moody, who lives on Morse Avenue, noticed. "That house was gross and falling over," she said. "So it is getting better."

But she said more needs to be done. Another neighbor keeps junk cars and trash on his lawn, she said.

"In our situation, it's unsafe," she said. "My kids ride their bikes back there, and there's glass everywhere." She plans to move elsewhere in the city soon, she said.

As much as city departments are taking on blight, they're also trying to recognize investment.

At the intersection of Fort and Thames streets, Susan Bailey - program coordinator for the "Summer in the City" marketing effort - worked with neighbors, U.S. Navy volunteers and students from Ella T. Grasso Technical High School to create a small park along the Thames River. Volunteers planted flowers, installed benches and put up what looks like a mailbox but contains books for visitors to read.

"Those kinds of things make an area attractive and nice," Galbraith said.

A 2-minute drive away, the owner of Salty Dog Barber & Shave relocated three months ago from downtown Mystic to 200 Broad St. in Groton City.

Owner Amy Rubin said she's glad she started her business in Mystic because she met great people. But traffic, construction and parking were hard on her clients, she said.

Yet she hesitated to move to the city at first when a client showed her the building.

"When I first looked at the place, I said, 'There's no way my Mystic people are going to come here,'" she said. But her landlord, David Preka of Advanced Improvements in Mystic, installed new floors, a new roof, painted and did whatever she asked.

Her clients stuck with her, she said.

Adam Thomas, who had his hair cut at Salty Dog Tuesday, moved to Mystic two months ago and planned to visit the Salty Dog.

Then it moved. So he found it. "It's just a really nice barbershop," Thomas said. "They did a good job."

Abbott also took an empty store and remodeled it.

"I'm trying to encourage other businesses to take a chance," he said. "And invest in Thames Street."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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