It was hard to read the story in Wednesday's paper about the two elegant historic homes in Lexington that an absentee owner has allowed to fall into ruin. One is condemned and the other is simply boarded up. Neighbors say it's been years since the owner has made repairs on either.
Recently, just as the city was prepared to begin foreclosing on one of the properties because of unpaid fines and taxes, the owner anted up the money to stop the foreclosure but did not make any repairs.
For readers the story is frustrating. Can't anyone do anything to stop this demolition by neglect? For neighbors it's worse. Both quality of life and property values suffer when there's a neglected hulk nearby. It's a drag on the city, too.
Neglected properties create problems not revenues. And the school district, which relies on property taxes for funding, also takes a hit. Ultimately, the farmland we so value is threatened by demands for development when property within the urban area isn't used wisely and fully.
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Worst of all, the story isn't either unusual or new. Although these two houses are huge, historic and striking architecturally, dozens of neighborhoods are plagued by more modest but still abandoned homes. And it's not just a residential issue. Commercial properties throughout the community stand vacant and neglected, casting a blight on properties that surround them, creating no jobs and providing very little in tax revenues.
In 2007 and 2008 city government inched toward addressing this problem. The Downtown Development Authority talked about a proposal that would essentially increase taxes significantly on blighted properties. The idea was to make it more expensive than it's worth to neglect your property, encouraging owners to either fix up or sell. Louisville has adopted a similar approach, creating a commission that uses published criteria to determine when properties are abandoned and then tripling property taxes on them.
But nothing came of Lexington's effort.
This is a complex and politically touchy problem. Private property rights are important in American history and carry enormous weight in Kentucky law. So devising a system to balance the public needs against those private rights requires careful thought and thorough research.
But Lexington's leaders must take this issue on and stick with it until a better process is in place. It's too important to neighbors, to schools, to the entire community.