The house at 676 Main Road North in Hampden is pictured March 16. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Hampden now has the means to force property owners to make repairs to buildings that are considered unfit for habitation after wrestling for 18 months with how to address dangerous structures in town.

The town’s new habitability standards took effect March 3 after the Town Council amended the zoning ordinance to include them.

“We’ve had a number of uninhabitable structures in town and no way to work with property owners to get them to make repairs,” said Ryan Carey, Hampden’s code enforcement officer. “This gives us more latitude in enforcement, but the goal is to have people comply voluntarily.”

The habitability standards are designed to address structures without working bathrooms, gaping holes in roofs that let in water and snow, missing windows and varmint infestations that make properties unsafe to inhabit, he said.

They are not meant to address routine property maintenance, but several residents at a council meeting Monday night said the new provisions were too vague, potentially allowing the town to force them to perform property maintenance they may not be able to afford.

At the beginning of 2020, Carey estimates, there were five uninhabitable structures in Hampden, a town with about 7,400 residents. One of those is located at 676 Main Road North next to the Dollar General store.

The abandoned and dilapidated back of the house is all that remains of the structure damaged by fire in February 2019. The front of the home is gone, replaced by lumber and debris.

The house at 676 Main Road North in Hampden is pictured March 16. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Without the standards, the town could not compel property owners to make repairs if they had paid their taxes, according to Carey. The town could raze a building under state law but would be responsible for the costs, which it cannot afford, he said.

The habitability standards allow the code enforcement department to issue warnings and give people a reasonable amount of time to make repairs. If they don’t make repairs in a timely manner, the town would be able to fine property owners and place liens on their property. The town also could secure a dangerous property and bill the owner for the costs under the new standards.

Several residents spoke at the council’s meeting Monday night and said they were concerned that the language in the standards is too vague and should be more specific about when and how inspections are conducted.

Robin Smith, who lives in a home built in 1922 on Main Road South, said that her basement occasionally leaks, but the standards require that her nearly 100-year-old home be “water tight,” which she can’t afford to pay for now.

In 2019, Hampden worked to research and propose property maintenance rules, but the Town Council rejected the rule proposal in early 2020. The following November, four councilors up for re-election chose not to run, and Carey had been on the job less than a year.

The house at 676 Main Road North in Hampden is pictured March 16. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

He worked with staff to come up with the habitability standards and put the focus on safety rather than maintenance. 

The new council held a public hearing on the proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance on Jan. 19, but no one from the public addressed councilors. With little discussion, the amendment failed 4-3. 

The new council held a public hearing on the proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance on Jan. 19, but no one one from the public addressed councilors. With little discussion, the amendment failed 4-3.

But at the next meeting on Feb. 1, Councilor Christine Cubberley, elected for the first time in November, said she had changed her mind and asked to reconsider the motion to adopt the habitability standards.

They passed with four councilors voting yes, two voting no and one abstaining.

The reconsideration and adoption of the amendment took residents by surprise, according to Councilor Allen Esposito, who opposed the new standards.

“Now, we have extremely upset citizens who think that the code enforcement officer, or even the police, are going to come to their homes unannounced and start implementing penalties for every little transgression,” he said.

Councilor Eric Jarvi said Monday night that the standards could be amended and that residents who felt they’d been unfairly told to make a structure inhabitable could seek a review from the town’s board of appeals.