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February 24, 2013

The clean-up continues: Progress made as Methuen targets vacant properties

METHUEN — When the city’s Building Safety Task Force was first assembled 15 years ago, only a few dozen abandoned homes, shuttered businesses and otherwise nuisance properties were on its radar.

But the problem grew consistently worse and eventually exploded after the great recession and resulting foreclosure crisis.

“We were completely behind the eight ball,” said Methuen Community Development Director William Buckley. “These things were popping up every day.

“The city was in the midst of a crisis. We had dozens of vacant properties without a strong infrastructure to deal with them. We spent a lot of time being reactive in 2012.”

Early last year, Methuen’s blighted and vacant properties became the target of a City Council featuring six new members. Newly-elected Mayor Stephen Zanni also made the issue a priority. With the Building Safety Task Force reinvigorated as a result, Buckley said the city put on a “full-court press” in 2012 to identify the extent of the problem and develop strategies to address it.

“The word gets out that the city is starting to get aggressive,” said Buckley. “It seems to have a snowball effect.”

In June 2012, Buckley said the task force was monitoring around 100 vacant or abandoned residential properties in the city. They’ve since whittled the list down to about 80 by pressuring property owners in a number of ways.

Banks and management companies now must register all abandoned or vacant buildings with the city. As a result, City Hall has collected more than $31,000 in registration fees to date, Buckley said.

Unsecured properties have also been boarded up. In about a half dozen instances, Buckley said the city stepped in and did the work when banks or management companies wouldn’t respond. Tax liens were then issued to cover the expense.

With the help of Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, Methuen has also started a receivership program for trouble properties. Several land court cases are now under way in an effort to collect back taxes from property owners.

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