ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
In its first month, the city of Hillsboro’s efforts to clean up “nuisance properties” around town has made positive progress, according to Martin Rhodes, the city’s building inspector, code-enforcement officer and fire marshall.
Of the initial 41 letters that were sent to property owners regarding violations of Ordinance 1029, six situations have since been brought into compliance and the rest are being addressed.
Thirty additional letters are ready to be mailed once more after the first batch are taken care of.
“I’m trying not to overwhelm myself,” said Rhodes, who assumed his position with the city in November.
Of course, not every recipient of a letter has been enthusiastic about receiving it.
“I’ve had a couple of people describe me as a particular part of a horse’s anatomy, but that’s OK,” Rhodes said with a chuckle.
“But I’ve also had several people thank me for that what’s been done. I had one person follow me clear into my driveway to thank me.”
Public support for the initiative shouldn’t be surprising. In the community-wide survey conducted last fall by the Hillsboro Planning and Development Commission, “clean up the town” topped the list of suggestions participants submitted for city improvements-and it was the No. 1 choice across each age category.
Rhodes said Ordinance 1029, passed by the city council in 2000, finally gave the city the authority to take action.
“In the past they’ve had public officers out there as a junkyard watch dog, but he only had rubber teeth because he didn’t have an ordinance to support him,” Rhodes said “In the year 2000, our city fathers and mothers put chrome teeth into the dog-and now I can do something.”
Even then, little was done until this year because the position Rhodes now occupies was only part-time until this past fall.
Even with a full-time person, the task takes considerable time and attention. Rhodes estimated he’s been spending about half his hours attending to the process.
Once a nuisance is identified-whether by Rhodes’ own observation or the complaint of neighbors-he sends a letter to the property owner stating a response is required within 10 days.
“I say you have 30 days to comply, or to contact me with a reasonable action plan,” Rhodes said. “I’ve had a couple people do that, and they were very sincere. We sat down and negotiated some time extensions on these things so they could get it done.
“And I believe these folks will do it because they were sincere about it,” Rhodes said. “The first day they got the letter, I got a phone call. That’s what we’re after.”
Property owners can also formally appeal the letter’s directives, but the appeal must be requested within 10 days as well.
If a property owner does not respond in 30 days or disavows receiving the letter-which is sent by certified mail-Rhodes has the authority under Ordinance 1029 to initiate the necessary cleanup process, and then to bill the property owner for the work.
If the property owner refuses to pay the bill, it will be passed on to the county and added to the owner’s property-tax bill.
Rhodes said he tries to be reasonable and fair throughout the process.
“I’m not trying to create a police state here,” he said. “We’re trying to get the town cleaned up.”
And that applies to every property owner, he added.
“I have sent out letters to friends of mine-some very important people in this community. I’m not drawing any lines so someone can’t say, ‘Why didn’t you send him or her a letter?'”
Rhodes said the ordinance includes properties in the business district as well as residential areas.
“Business owners need to walk out into the alley and look,” he said. “What the public sees in that man’s business is what they perceive he is on the inside.”
Rhodes said the concern which prompted passage of Ordinance 1029 is a balance between public health and aesthetics.
“The conditions of some of these old structures are dangerous as well as ugly,” he said. “When you have children in them, that’s a health concern. So they’re directly tied together.”
Rhodes said many citizens would be surprised by some of the situations he’s encountered.
“I’ve dodged rats, literally,” he said. “Two big old rats came running out from under a bunch of hay. I never did the jitterbug before, but I did that day to try to get out of the way.”
Rhodes said property owners can avoid the city’s intervention if they simply try to evaluate the condition of their property from a neighbor’s perspective
“I just wish people would walk out in the middle of their alley and look back toward their property and see what they see,” he said. “That’s what their neighbors are looking at.
“Their neighbors across the street have a well-groomed landscaped yard, the house is maintained-and yet they have to look at this guy’s pile of trash.”
Rhodes said he realizes one person’s pile of trash is another person’s treasure.
That’s where diplomacy skills come in. For instance, Rhodes said he could deliver the notices personally, but has chosen to mail them instead.
“I don’t want to embarrass these folks and make them madder than they’re already going to be when the open the letter,” he said.
Rhodes said the city tries to help any resident and business who has unwanted materials that need removal.
“We have two or three dump trucks that are available to them on the weekend at no charge-and that includes no dump charge,” he said. “All they have to do is sign up for that truck and we’ll bring to them on Friday and pick it up on Monday.”
Rhodes said he was aware this assignment was waiting for him when he took the job with the city last fall. He doesn’t mind the role because he believes it will enhance life in Hillsboro.
“I’ll tell you, it’s not been an easy job, though,” he said. “My youngest daughter said, ‘Dad, I don’t understand you. You don’t like controversy. What are you doing?'”
He’d like to see citizens publicly voice their opinions about the cleanup campaign.
“I think it would be good for people to write letters to the editor, whether they agree or disagree,” he said. “If there’s 10 or 15 letters from people who say they agree with what’s being done, I think people who are noncompliant will get with it.”