Blight battle: Clovis not alone in fight

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

A business wants to locate in your city.

Like most businesses, it wants land cheap.

In most cases that means land outside the core city.

The business buys, the city expands and all parties are happy.

Unless, of course, the older parts of the city get ignored in the hustle and bustle of expansion.

In that case, Hobbs City Manager Eric Honeyfield said, the dollars go out and the city becomes, “A doughnut where nobody wants to go in after dark.”

Though each city in New Mexico has its own respective circumstances, blight neither avoids Clovis nor any other city.

And just as one city is different from another, so are the approaches. Whether they are forcing the issue, working with the property owners or establishing new landscaping rules, leaders in other New Mexico cities are trying to solve the same problems plaguing Clovis.

One of the biggest problems, Wanda Welch of Carlsbad said, is the temptation of apathy on any front.

“You’ve got to have the united front in any of this, and have your elected officials and anybody on board,” said Welch, president of the Keep Carlsbad Beautiful Committee. “It’s easy to drive down the street today and pass by a (dilapidated) house, then you drive by it and don’t look at it anymore.”

Carlsbad’s committee works just like the Keep Clovis Beautiful committee, with two major cleanups annually and city and county officials involved in the process. The current committee, Welch said, includes the mayor, three city councilors and two former councilors.

But it’s the volunteers, mostly retired senior citizens with the time to make a difference, who fuel the effort.

“With every property, you have to research the owner,” Welch said. “There’s a lot of legwork. We’re so fortunate we have people where it’s a concern for them … and they’ll do the research.”

Condemning a property goes on the city council agenda. Welch said most property owners will start to improve their land or home when a committee member approaches them.

“We have great success in going in and visiting them, especially if they’re in-town owners,” Welch said. “Lots of times, they’ll jump in and do something about it once they know they’ve got to do it.”

Otherwise, Welch said, the city is lenient and gives a deadline of 90 days for improvements to be made.

About 120 miles south of Clovis, the city of Roswell and Chaves County handle the perimeter of the city with what Marlin Johnson calls an ETZ — an extraterritorial zone that extends about two miles beyond Roswell into the county.

“We do have a higher standard for what’s called our arterial overlay district,” said Johnson, planning and zoning director since September. “In that arterial overlay district, we have landscaping requirements, so that when properties are rezoned (or renovated) … they trigger these landscaping requirements.”

The system isn’t perfect. Johnson said a drive through the ETZ could reveal a beautiful new building, sandwiched between a building modified just enough to meet requirements and another that hasn’t been upgraded for years.

But some of the easiest beautification methods are ideas Clovis already has implemented.

“Entry signs are a good start,” Johnson said. “They show some pride in your community.”

But it can’t end there.

Since arriving in Hobbs, Honeyfield said his focus has been on condemning buildings. Some 130 buildings have been condemned this year — an average of five condemnations for every city commission meeting.

“My big crusade has been condemn, condemn, condemn, because these structures cause crime,” Honeyfield said. “People’s behavior declines with the quality of their surroundings, or lack thereof.”

Money is tight for tax breaks and loans these days. Most especially in New Mexico, where finding new sources of tax revenue — not granting tax credits — is at the top of most agendas.

“Very few cities have the courage to do that,” Honeyfield said. “Most cities are in the Clovis-Hobbs mold, where you build outside. You’re left with deteriorated neighborhoods. The neighborhoods left behind, Honeyfield said, often have more calls to city services (police, fire, code enforcement) than their tax base covers.

“I accept that; it’s the way most cities develop. We ought to be aggressive to have government intervention to have those properties redeveloped.”

Honeyfield said at first the effort to condemn buildings was slow to build momentum. But citizens and commissioners soon realized neighbors of those properties were the ones suffering the most.

Clovis City Safety Inspector Pete Wilt said there’s no ballpark figure for condemning a house, because of several factors (size, material, whether there’s a basement). But he has seen condemnations as cheap as $1,500 and as expensive as $15,000.

Honeyfield said none of the condemned buildings were inhabited. Most condemnations end up on the council’s consent agenda, but the legal process still takes up to three years to complete.

“We approached it from the attitude that it took decades for this deterioration to happen,” Honeyfield said. “It won’t be fixed in a few years.

“We shouldn’t demand instant gratification.”