As Hillsboro’s code enforcement officer, Ben Steketee says his No. 1 task is to inform the local family of citizens about the house rules it has established.
Particularly he’s concerned about nuisances that can affect public health and safety.
“I think people just aren’t aware of what the codes are,” he said, “I think it’s helpful just to make people aware.”
Last month Steketee announced he would be focusing during September on the removal of junk cars.
“If you have a junked car in your yard, you can expect to hear from me,” he said.
Steketee said the news generated public response.
“I think most people want to comply,” he said. “Some were angry with me, but most people simply wanted to know, ‘What do I need to do?’”
Weeds and grass
With that project under way, Steketee wants to expand public awareness to include what city ordinance No. 1029 says about weed and grass nuisances.
He said most citizens know they have the responsibility to keep their lawns reasonably trimmed, but they may not know that their responsibility extends beyond their personal property lines to the centerline of any adjacent street or alley.
“I think that’s pretty interesting, and I’ll wager that some people think once they get to their property line, they’re done—because that’s how I see it (being understood).
“I see right-of-ways and alleys that are overgrown, where the lawn has been mowed right up to the property line.”
Steketee said some people assume alleys and right-of-ways are the city’s responsibility to maintain.
“It’s just people’s perception—‘Well, that’s city property and they’re going to mow it.’ That’s what I would think, too,” he said. “That’s why this is important for people to know. The code indicates their responsibility to maintain it.
“Just because it’s your backyard, it still applies,” he added with a smile. “Anything within the property lines and the center line of any adjacent street or alley is included.”
One place where he sees violations is the strip of land through the middle of town where railroad tracks used to run.
“I’m still not clear who owns that property,” Steketee said. “As far as I know, it’s still railroad right-of-way or it’s somebody’s (personal) property. Either way, that adjacent landowner is responsible to kept it mowed.
“I think it’s important for people to know that because I’m often having to educate people about it.”
Unkempt weeds and grass is not only an aesthetic issue. The ordinance states that such areas attract “rats, insects, animals, reptiles or any other creature which either may or does constitute a menace to health, public safety or welfare.”
In addition, overgrown weeds and grass, when dry, increase the fire menace for adjacent property and structures.
Steketee outlined the procedure he follows when he notices violations.
“I leave a door-hanger first,” he said. “To me, that’s the least intrusive—to have a note there that says, ‘OK, I noticed you’re in violation, please fix it.’ I’ll check a little box that indicates the nature of the violation.”
With the initial notice, he said, there’s no deadline prescribed for fixing the violation or any threat of action if it isn’t addressed.
“If that doesn’t do the trick, then I like to follow up with a phone call and see if I can find what the plan is for getting the violation corrected,” Steketee said. “Then, if I don’t get results from the phone call, I have to send a ‘fix it or else’ letter.”
As a last resort, the city steps in. “In some cases, the city has to abate the nuisance and then charge the landowner,” Steketee said. “I don’t want it to get to that point. I’d like the person to take of his own thing. But sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
Working to improve
Steketee said the recent increased emphasis on code enforcement is his own initiative.
“I actually have three jobs with the city, and I’m grateful for my jobs, I really I am,” he said. “But I want to keep getting better at each one. This is an effort to do a better job of code enforcement.”
His other two jobs are fire chief and building inspector.
“Because there are only so many hours in a day and I don’t have a lot of time to drive around and look, it would really be best for everyone if people would take care of their own thing,” he said.
“If they know what the code is, that helps them understand what’s expected and they won’t be getting notices from the city.”
As the code enforcement officer, Steketee understands why he is the lightning rod for public reaction. But he sees his job differently.
“I like to think they’re not getting a notice from me, they’re getting a notice from the city—and the city is all of us together having agreed this is the way we want to live together. It’s not me.”
His intent is to highlight other common code violations in the coming months.