SILVER CITY — Property owners of vacant commercial buildings in Silver City's historic downtown area will now be required to register with the town's Community Development Department and allow inspections of the buildings for safety violations, something that has not been done before now.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the Silver City Town Council voted to approve an ordinance regulating vacant buildings in the downtown historic district, but not before a few sparks flew.

Early in the meeting, Silver City resident Bill Carlis distributed to members of the council and the audience two pages of single-spaced typed notes he prepared titled "Issues and Problems with Proposed Silver City Ordinance 1211." The council took a short break to allow time for them to read over the notes.

When the meeting resumed, Carlis took his place at the podium and began to go over the notes. He spoke for about 15 minutes, going over his points.

In his notes, Carlis, who listed himself as a a licensed mechanical, plumbing and fire suppression contractor, dissected the ordinance, claiming in one point that it will overburden property owners of vacant buildings during a depression.

"This doesn't seem so much as a fire suppression ordinance as a beautification ordinance," he said. "If we really wanted to rejuvenate downtown, we really need to reduce rents and have some kind of rent control. How do we mandate occupancy during a depression?"

Mayor James Marshall attempted to respond to Carlis, saying, "You don't understand the ordinance you just spoke for 15 minutes about," when Carlis began interrupting him.

"I am speaking, sir," the mayor responded.

Carlis then suggested that since two of the town's council members owned property downtown — Polly Cook, who owns Javalina Coffee Shop, and Mike Morones, who owns Morones & Knuttinen accounting firm — their voting on the ordinance would be a conflict of interest. Cook began saying she didn't think it would be a conflict, when Carlis interrupted her.

That's when Marshall banged the gavel, saying, "You're out of order! Sit down. Your time is up. I will not allow you to disrespect the council."

Carlis took his seat, but as the mayor began saying that the town has an ethics ordinance and the town attorney, Robert Scavron, would be the one to address that, Carlis began directing questions from his seat to Scavron.

The mayor put his foot down again.

"You can sit there and listen to the rest of the meeting," he told Carlis.

"There has been a lot of case law on this very issue," Scavron said, "and when it elevates the town as a whole, it's not a conflict."

Downtown business owner Mitch Hellman, who co-owns Alotta Gelato with his partner Starr Belsky, said the issue of why downtown has so many vacant buildings is the second-most asked question by visitors, with the first being why aren't more places open on Sunday.

Hellman also said the number of building owners who have not visibly invested in their downtown properties has been pretty much the same since he has been in business for the past nine years, and that many of the same buildings have been vacant during that time. He said many are owned by absentee landlords and others who place rents too high and would rather leave their buildings empty and collect no rent than getting some rent.

The ordinance, with a few minor changes, passed with a unanimous vote of the council and is posted in full on the town's website. It will become effective Oct. 16. Within 45 days of that date, or 45 days of a building becoming vacant, property owners will need to file status reports with the town every 30 days for as long as the vacancy continues. They will also need to submit to an inspection by the fire marshal and town's building inspector for safety issues. The owners would pay a $35 fee for the inspection. The ordinance would also require owners to file reports showing any changes, within 10 days of the change, and maintain a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance. Penalties of not less than $100 per offense would be assessed if the owner does not comply. 

"I'm happy that it's passed and look forward to building owners cooperating with the ordinance for the betterment of downtown overall," Hellman said.

Silver City MainStreet Manager Nick Seibel said he is also pleased the council passed the ordinance unanimously.

"I don't know that it is the entire solution, but it sends a powerful message that the community is concerned about downtown vacancies and that we are making an effort to improve the situation," he said.

Seibel added that he didn't think the intent of the ordinance was to be punitive.

"There is a whole array of assistance that MainStreet can offer," he said, "low-interest loans through the state, architectural assistance on building improvements. Having this ordinance on the books will help them come to us and help get their building rented because that's what we are here for."

Councilor Morones, the sponsor of the ordinance, said a group of downtown property owners who used to meet as a merchant's association told him that there are basically the same amount of properties that have been vacant for a decade or more. There are approximately 12 buildings downtown around Bullard Street that are currently vacant.

Christine Steele can be reached at (575) 538-5893 ext. 5802.