My Turn: Some ideas on city code enforcement
By Joe Morris
Ecclesiastes tell us that “there is nothing new under the sun.” The truth is that all that has happened before will happen again. Such is the case with most everything observed in life and, most recently, I have made this unsurprising correlation with the enforcement of city codes. No doubt, new state laws are enacted, well-debated ordinances are adopted, elected officials come and go, city staff retire or move on. And yet, the grass simply grows and grows.
We all know that circumstances change, families move away and jobs are lost. People die. Houses, both newer and older, left to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, begin to deteriorate. In a twist of irony, the Salisbury preservation community has done such a great job of saving our architectural heritage that, when a building falls sadly in to disrepair, the undesirable conditions are amplified by the knowledge that a small repair, here and there, would have prevented predictable structural demise. The impact of deteriorated housing and poorly maintained properties spreads quickly through neighborhoods, especially when fueled by neglect and indifference.
In light of recent attention brought to the conditions of our community, perhaps there are some new, and not so new, ideas to consider:
- Staff the Code Enforcement Division to pre-2011 levels with 1 code enforcement manager, 1 clerical / office position and 3 code enforcement officers. A Reduction in Force in 2011 reduced the number of employees assigned to code enforcement and the city has been unable to fully staff the division since that time.
- Divide the city into seven neighborhood planning areas for purposes of code inspection and compliance. This would entail six commercial / neighborhood zones and a separate zone for the downtown – which is the only area subject to the standards of the commercial maintenance code. The current proposal of two zones split along Innes Street (AKA the Krispy Kreme and the Dunkin’ Doughnut zones) is ineffective. The current enforcement zones are too large with too many properties to be effectively managed by just two officers. Adding an officer would facilitate assigning 2 neighborhood planning areas per officer. The code enforcement manager would be assigned to the municipal service district to implement the commercial maintance code.
- Contract with local landscape and maintenance professionals to inspect for code violations during the peak summer months when there is accelerated vegetative growth. These contractors would be trained by city staff and would report violations to city administrators. Additional contractors would be hired to abate nuisance conditions through a “blind” system that rotates work assignments among pre-qualified contractors.
- Create a policy that encourages proactive inspection and code compliance as opposed to the current methodology of “complaint-driven” code enforcement.
- Create a vacant housing strategy ranging from rehabilitation to short-term stabilization to scheduled demolition. This effort could be coordinated by working with the Housing Advocacy Commission, the Community Appearance Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission.
- Increase the abatement fees on an accelerated basis for chronic violators. For many property owners, it is cheaper to allow the grass to grow and have the city correct the nuisance conditions rather than performing regular maintenance on property they own. The city taxpayer should not be the most economical provider of maintenance services for private property.
- Identify absentee property owners and chronic violators through GIS mapping. Pre-notify violators from previous years that their property will be frequently inspected on a regularly scheduled basis.
- Establish a policy of persistent phone, email and written notification to property owners. Copy all written communications to the City Manager and City Attorney.
- Create an enterprise fund with code enforcement revenue that allows fees from nuisance abatements to be used for staff training, technology, public education and neighborhood improvement projects.
- Establish a “neighborhood conservation” zoning overlay for neighborhoods that lack preservation protections, restrictive covenants or home-owners’ associations to address a higher level of neighborhood appearance and commercial land use activities.
- Establish an alternate time for SNAG meetings during evening hours. The currently established SNAG meeting time would not change, but this would be an additional meeting to be held in neighborhood recreation centers or public schools.
- Establish a program of “neighborhood walkabouts” with department heads and elected officials who would patrol selected neighborhoods on an invitation basis. Problems and concerns would be addressed and reported back to neighborhood residents and City Council.
- Begin providing a monthly neighborhood code compliance / progress report to City Council. Include addresses and names of property owners in the report for publication in the newspaper and other media outlets.
The goal of nuisance abatement is not to embarrass or financially punish a property owner. The goal should be to maintain order in our community and to protect the health, safety and economic welfare of all citizens. It is our duty and obligation as a civilized society. Let’s work to make it a priority.
Joe Morris formerly served as planning director for the city of Salisbury.