The lots began appearing more than two years ago in the neighborhoods that surround Eulaton Road and since then, they have become as common as the dilapidated structures that use to sit on them. One-by-one, the Calhoun County enforcement office has identified and removed 118 blighted properties from a five-block area using federal grant money.
“It made it look a lot better,” said Charles Shears, who has lived in the community for almost 30 years. “Most of those old houses were falling in.”
County officials have used the bulk of a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant to clear five blocks, and will soon begin clearing one last block, which includes more than two dozen dilapidated homes, businesses or storage buildings. The program, called the Community Pride Project – West End, was used in Wellborn because there are several blighted properties there and because U.S. census data identified the area as being home to low to moderate income residents.
“The main idea is to help the community,” Calhoun County Enforcement Officer David Pirritano said. “When you do things like this, people get revived and begin cleaning up their property.”
When the lots are cleared, trees and grass are left on them and the empty spaces often take on a park-like appearance.
In once instance a church purchased a pair of cleared lots that adjoin their property to use as a playground for their children. Pirritano said that trend is catching on and that others in the community are beginning to pay backed taxes on lots to use them for several different purposes.
Most of the homes in the Wellborn community were once owned by people who worked in the nearby factories, but when they began closing, residents left for jobs in other areas. Some retired and remained there but have long since passed away.
The properties passed to their children, who have moved away or have little time and money to tend to them. As a result, they left behind vacant homes, many of which have collapsed roofs and walls that fold inward like wet cardboard.
Robert and Joyce Deese can attest to that. They have lived in corner lot since they moved there in 1966, but their home, which is kept neat, is surrounded by blighted properties. Their neighbors to the left passed away more than a decade ago, leaving behind a small shotgun-style home with no one to tend to it. Now it stands empty with doors wide open and thick brush surrounding it.
“When we moved here, it was mostly old people and they took care of their things, but as the older people moved out, the young ones came in,” Deese said. “It’s like everything else, it’s changed.”
Pirritano said the program not only benefits the community by providing a better environment for people like the Deeses, it benefits the entire county because once people purchase the cleared properties, they begin paying taxes on the lots. That money, in turn, is used to fund services and projects.
The program is used in addition to the public nuisance laws, which ultimately force people to pay for cleanups provided by the county. Before those cleanups occur, the county enforcement officer gives the property owners more than three months to clear the lots.
If they don’t, the county clears the lots for them, but the owners are stuck with the cost. The bill is noted on their tax records and the property owner is required to pay for it before they can pay their taxes. If the owners fail to pay their property taxes, they risk losing their lots.
“We don’t go in there like storm troopers. We work with them. If they go in and show they’re trying to do it, we extend it,” He said. “We got this money for them, and we want to let them know we got it for them.”
That doesn’t mean residents there are not responsible for their property maintenance. The county enforcement office has already prepared notifications for residents who don’t maintain their property after the program ends.
“If we’re going to spend about a half million dollars to clean up your community, you’re going to clean it up too,” Pirritano said.
Contact staff writer Laura Johnson at 256-235-3544.