MEADOW LAKE, N.M. (KRQE) – Residents in Valencia County say there’s been a problem piling up that’s been ignored for far too long. The abandoned homes and buildings in their community are eyesores and magnets for crime.
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County leaders now say they have a plan to address a problem that’s been years in the making. For thousands of New Mexicans whose home is their sanctuary in Valencia County, there are also hundreds of homes long left forgotten. “I walk the dogs out here every day,” said one woman, who did not want to be identified. “It’s just a mess, and it’s a shame,” she said, pointing to piles of trash along the road.
In the small Meadow Lake community alone there are 30 to 40 homes considered vacant. “There’s several streets that have burned buildings that have been there for years,” said the longtime Valencia County resident. She picks up trash along the road on her daily walks. “Just trying to make it look a little better,” she explained.
However, looks aren’t the only concern. “It’s a little scary because you don’t know what they do in there, they might do a crime, they might be cooking drugs, who knows?” said Geraldo Gabaldon, a Valencia County resident.
County residents say some of the problem properties have been abandoned for more than a decade. But with property owners often nowhere in sight, what is the solution?
That’s where a group of county leaders comes in. “We’re the ones overseeing the project and trying to get it off the ground,” said Valencia County Manager, Danny Monette. He, along with four senior staffers in the county formed a committee to tackle the issue of abandoned homes. “We’ve had a lot of complaints about abandoned properties around the county,” said Monette. “We want to get that cleaned up.”
“Coming from a code enforcement perspective, we hear about it really on a daily basis, so it’s something we hear a lot about, and I think we’re all excited to actually be able to do something about it,” explained Nancy Gonzales, Community Development Director for Valencia County.
Unlike big cities such as Albuquerque, Valencia County doesn’t have a regular budget to deal with the demolition of abandoned properties. So just this year, the county received $500,000 in capital appropriation funding from the state legislature to get the ball rolling.
“We’re looking at between 15 to 30 properties based on the amount of money that we got,” said Project Manager, Jeremias Silva. He explained first, the county is compiling a list of abandoned properties, and working with law enforcement and the fire department to identify the worst of the worst. “Where have they been called out to? Where do homicides happen?” Silva said. “Where are kids being involved with drugs and stuff like that?”
The county will then try and reach the property owner, giving them three notices of violation and a final warning to clean up. But finding property owners can be a challenge. Some homes are foreclosures, others are tied up in owner-finance, or the owner could be an out-of-state bank. “There’s people as far as Germany, you know South America, things like that, that we have to contact for just property tax collection,” Monnette explained.
Property owners have 60 days to respond to each notice. If no one responds to clean up the property, the county can move to demolish a home.
However, demolition is not cheap. “That’s gonna range depending on the size of the home and the property and what’s needed, between $15,000 and $30,000,” Silva explained.
Dealing with asbestos or the remnants of drug use, and the price tag climbs even higher. “Right now we’ve identified two properties within the county to be our guinea pigs, and we’re just trying to learn the process, and get that going,” said Monette.
Working through the long list of homes, county officials know it will take some time to fix a problem that’s been years in the making. When asked whether the properties pose a public safety concern, Jeff Noah, Chief Deputy with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office replied, “I think any abandoned property creates safety issues.”
Noah said they often get reports of homeless people plugging in extension cords to steal power for vacant homes. Various vacant properties throughout the county are also used as dumpsites. “Kids have parties in there, even adults have parties,” said Noah. “They go in there and vandalize and steal stuff out of it.”
For now, county officials are asking the public to report issues. They’re also asking for patience. “We’re also hoping that the residents will see that we’re taking this seriously and we’re out there trying to get something done,” explained Monette. “And that spurs them to start cleaning up their own properties.”
“You know, we all live and work here, and we want people to see the beauty that is Valencia County,” Gonzales explained. “I think a lot of that is overshadowed by you know the trash, the abandoned buildings.”
“If we can really kind of restore the integrity of the community, that’s our goal,” Gonzales added. ” Keep it safe, keep it beautiful, and just restore some of our own self-respect in the county.”
Going forward, Valencia County officials say they plan to sustain a budget for things like demolition costs so they can continue tackling the problem. “We have a commission that is very much behind this project and wants to help beautify Valencia County and its troubled areas,” said Monette. “And it’s just – it has to be the focus of various county employees as well as the elected officials.”