AYER -- Selectmen talked Tuesday about enforcement -- or lack thereof -- of town bylaws regarding "delinquent" properties. Building Commissioner Gabe Vellante likewise vented over the pace at which problem properties are cleaned up.
Selectman Chairman Jim Fay pressed Vellante. "What I'm really after is the enforcement arm to meet code and regulations. If there's no desire to comply, then we need some enforcement arms which you don't have."
Vellante said that so-called delinquent properties are usually cleared when they're sold. Vellante has repeatedly requested selectmen provide legal assistance to pursue matters ripe for civil action in court. Vellante noted that, even when the matters eventually hit the courtroom, extensions are routinely granted, causing cases to drag for months and years.
Regarding a residentially-zoned property at 71 Sandy Pond Road, Vellante said it appears owner Mark Velardi may have ceased cleaning up his front yard. In December, Velardi declined selectmen's offer to grant him more time to comply. Velardi's Dec. 31 deadline passed and the situation lingers, said Vellante.
"He's done virtually nothing," said Vellante. Now, the yard is blanketed by snow.
"Is it your opinion that he's working with us?" asked Fay.
"To a degree," said Vellante. "To the point he can make the case he's making an effort, but I don't think he's going overboard."
Velardi has been cited for stacking large felled trees in the front yard, allegedly operating a business out of his home, and placing an accessory building in his front yard when the residential bylaw dictates accessory structures must be located in the rear or side yard.
"The next course of action with him is to turn it over to legal for recommendations on how or whether to proceed," said Vellante.
Velardi, who is wheelchair bound, frequently references his handicapped status and health. "I think we have to be very careful in all of these cases," said Vellante. "You can very easily get into a civil-rights violation."
Selectman Christopher Hillman, who has previously exchanged heated words with Velardi at prior selectmen meetings, has said the situation makes his "blood boil."
"The handicapped thing doesn't fly," said Hillman. Hillman said heavy equipment and trees continues to come and go from the Velardi property, which is located across the street from the town beach.
"Sitting on it is really torquing me," said Hillman. "As the father of a handicapped child, I'm really getting me to the point of explosion here."
Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said he owed Velardi a visit to investigate Velardi's claim that town road runoff is flooding his property. "It's freezing, so it's hard to do flow tests" in the winter months, said Pontbriand.
Selectman Frank Maxant said the town's inaction on the matter is turning Velardi's land "into wetlands" while Velardi's alleged violation "isn't causing harm to anyone." Maxant advised that a town should not take legal action against a property owner if it did not have "clean hands."
"When you graduate law school, I'll seek your advice," retorted Fay.
Vellante said Velardi has never claimed his property has a grandfathered commercial use. Locals recall the days when the property was the site of a convenience store.
"He's not grandfathered," said Vellante. Vellante said he told Velardi to visit the Zoning Board of Appeals for conditions on operating a home-based businesses like business hours and limits on the number of commercial vehicles on site. "I told him I wouldn't contest it," said Vellante.
"Why would he apply?" asked Hillman. "We do nothing ... If Mr. Velardi fenced in his property I'd be fine ... He's operating a saw mill!"
"I wouldn't do anything if the town's a paper tiger," added Hillman. "We've got to drop it or do something."
Shifting sites to 14 Williams St., Vellante said owner Hugh Ernisse has refused to do any work to clean up his property because he's in foreclosure. "He won't invest any money until he knows where he stood with the bank. That's another one where we have to sit down with counsel."
Hillman asked if the building was a "tenement." Ernisse held up two fingers when asked how many units are in the building.
On Ernisse's 128 Washington St. residence, located across the street from the school campuses, Vellante said a wooden deck may look gnarled but is structurally "intact."
"I don't care if Mr. Ernisse falls through his deck, no offense," said Hillman. Can the deck support two to three emergency responders, he asked.
"It's fairly secure" answered Vellante. "Does it mean it couldn't collapse? There's always that possibility. With a half a dozen firefighters on there, I can't guarantee it wouldn't come down."
Regarding the McNiff farm at 64 Westford Road, Vellante urged caution, stating the working farm is exempt from local bylaws in some instances. Vellante likewise sought legal advice on how to proceed with enforcement actions against the McNiff property.
"Are the hours you work adequate?" asked Fay. "In 15 years, there's no improvement. It's the same old song."
"When I first moved in here, on every single block in town there was one of these properties that could use a little help on enforcement matters," said Fay. "I think we should hire a full-time inspector." Fay praised the approach of predecessor Bill Halligan, calling him the "cat's meow" though Halligan "may have done it in another way."
Vellante said he knew Halligan "very well and he was a good inspector" but added that both he and Halligan faced the same slow pace on enforcement in the court system. The two spent two years each on a problem Pearl Street property. Vellante said court magistrates kept giving the owner 90-day extensions to comply.
The situation finally cleared when the owner went bankrupt. The new owner cleared the issues within two days of purchase.
"Have we ever instituted a fine?" asked Hillman regarding alleged zoning violations. No, said Vellante.
Hillman said vehicles dotting McNiff's fields have "been there since I rode a BMX bike ... I think he owes it to the farm, the animals -- maybe we need to contact the DEP or EPA ..."
Hillman pressed Vellante, saying it "appears the buildings are falling down" and "it seems he blew you off."
"Have you been up to 14 William St.," asked Hillman of the Ernisse property. Of full black trash bags around the yard, Hillman suggested the contents "could be money. I doubt it."
Vellante pushed back, "I don't know why I'm being singled out." Vellante said, depending on whether something is a zoning or health violation, other enforcers on these issues include the Ayer Police and the Ayer Board of Health.
"Whatever you're doing, it's not working," said Fay. "The bottom line is we're not getting the result. We need to change our approach."
Ted Jeffords of Turtle Hill Road said the McNiff farm "has become a dump. There are 55-gallon drums in the field ... My impression is if we're not going to do any enforcing, we shouldn't even pay a part-time guy."
Paul Magno of Rose Lane added, "It's embarrassing for you as a board to say you've been working on these issues for so long yet nothing gets done. I'm at a loss of words."
Selectman Pauline Conley said the issue is most applicable town bylaws "are ancient and have never been updated by town counsel ... it still falls to this board to refer it to counsel ... We have to be guided by what they tell us. If these bylaws don't have teeth, we have to have these bylaws changed."
Hillman said he feared loss of life with escaped livestock from the McNiff farm, stating he's witnessed "a 2,000-pound bull running down Westford Street."
Hillman motioned that town counsel be contacted immediately ("tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.") to take action against the targeted properties. "I guess we call them delinquent properties."
Vellante said fees for violations are low. "Most of them don't lose any sleep or show up in the morning to see how they can rectify the problem" when they're notified of violations, said Vellante.
Fay also called for a joint meeting of the selectmen, Board of Health, Planning and Zoning boards and other enforcement officials to brainstorm and compare notes on the issue.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.