Hillsboro launches effort to enforce ‘nuisance’ ordinances

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Negligent property owners beware: Hillsboro City Ordinance 1029 is about to be implemented.

The ordinance, passed in Aug. 2000, gives the city the authority to take action against “nuisance” properties that have seriously deteriorated or that violate the city’s housing code.

“Specifically, what we’re talking about are trash and weed ordinances, but also into housing codes-which is something most towns our size don’t deal with, but should,” said City Administrator Steven Garrett.

The ordinance has not been implemented until now because the city has lacked the staffing resources to get the task accomplished, according to Garrett.

“Time is a big issue,” Garrett said. “To follow through with these things does take time. It takes research, it takes patience, it takes diplomacy, it takes heavy-handedness-all in the right amounts for getting done what you want to get done.

“We did not have anybody who was focused on that,” he added. “It was something even I attempted to do and failed to get completed because of time.”

Garrett said the situation changed when the position of public building inspector and code-enforcement was expanded from part-time to full-time with the hiring of Martin Rhodes in November.

“Martin is here and ready to go,” Garrett said. “He has some ideas about what he wants to do.

“Martin has a common-sense approach to this thing,” he added. “What we’re trying to do is to take care of blight areas, areas that might be of health concern.

“We’re not out there capriciously enforcing rules that don’t make sense. These rules do make sense. These rules aren’t established to punish anybody. They’re established to make possible the quiet enjoyment of everyone’s property.

“That’s something we owe to the community as a whole.”

Garrett said the primary focus of the ordinance is residential properties, but the initiative applies to commercial properties, too.

“Commercial properties are also part of the community,” he said. “It becomes an issue at that point of maybe rethinking how we do some things.”

Garrett said the city will become involved when a problem is apparent from ordinary observation, but it also will respond to citizen complaints.

Once a problem is identified, the city will then contact the property owner.

“What we have always tried to do is make a personal contact with the property owner before we begin the official sequence of events,” Garrett said.

That sequence of events begins with issuing a letter directing the property owner to take care of the problem in a specified amount of time-generally 30 days in cases involving weeds or trash, and a mutually agreeable timetable for structural issues.

The person has the opportunity either to do the work, or to request a hearing with standards hearing officer. Currently, that person is a retired jurist living in Newton.

If the property owner does not correct the situation or does not respond to the city letter, the city will abate the situation and attach the expense of the project to the property owner’s tax bill.

Condemning and demolishing the property is one of the city’s options.

Garrett said national codes specify that a structure is a candidate for demolition if it would take an investment of more than 50 percent of its value to bring the property into code.

“For example, if someone owns a $10,000 rat trap, and it would cost more than $5,000 to bring it up to code, it’s ready for the scrap heap,” Garrett said. “That’s part of the national code. It’s not something we made up.”

Garrett said the city plans to work congenially but firmly with owners of nuisance properties.

“In these situation, you owe the individual you’re dealing with some things, too,” he said. “We haven’t found many situations where folks don’t want to cooperate. Usually they do. And I think we get closer to where want to be through cooperation instead of being combative.

“I think that’s going to be an aspect of Martin’s approach that’s going to work out pretty well,” he added.

Garrett said the city’s initiative, which began with the first of the year, is intended to benefit the community as a whole.

“It’s not an enforcement issue, it’s a quality-of-life issue,” Garrett said.

“My experience at Hillsboro has been that we are very proud of our quality of life here. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t agree.

“But then I would also say we need to be constantly vigilant to maintain and improve that quality of life.

“The issue about housing codes becomes an important part of that quality-of-life issue,” he added. “Everybody who lives in Hillsboro deserves to live in a house that meets code.

“The enforcement of the housing code is new territory for us. But it’s territory that we need to go into.”

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