FREE PRESS REAL ESTATE FOCUS

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
What does an individual owe his neighbors and community in general when it comes to the care and presentation of his property?

That question has been at the heart of a cleanup campaign conducted since the first of the year by the city of Hillsboro-and resistance to it on the part of some property owners.

Since the first of the year, the city has sent out about 80 registered letters telling property owners to address situations which are deemed to be out of compliance with city ordinances.

“I do believe neighbors owe neighbors safety, and also something that doesn’t destroy the feel of the neighborhood,” said Steven Garrett, city administrator. “I think the city believes that, too, because that’s where zoning (ordinances) comes from.”

Leading the city’s cleanup campaign has been Martin Rhodes, who was hired last fall as Hillsboro’s public building inspector and code-enforcement officer.

One of the first tasks assigned to Rhodes was to enforce “nuisance-property” ordinances that had not been enforced for some 20 years.

“I had files and files of letters that were sent out, but no aggressive follow through had been done,” he said. “In some cases, we find some follow-up letters. But sometimes letters just don’t do it. You’ve got to go see the people, and I have.”

By in large, Rhodes said, his efforts have been well received-not only by the public in general, but even by a large majority of the property owners who received the letters.

Rhodes estimates that 80 percent of the owners who received a letter have taken care of the problem. About 15 percent still have work to do, and about 5 percent have actively resisted the city’s involvement-even to the point, in at least one case, of hiring an attorney for protection.

“All in all I feel positive about (the campaign) because the citizens who have been affected by it are positive about it,” Rhodes said.

Along the way, several dilapidated homes and outbuildings have been removed, while others have been repaired and painted. Several abandoned cisterns have been filled and numerous abandoned vehicles hauled away.

“One of the toughest things is the old cars that people have,” Rhodes said. “I sometimes think it would be much easier for me to drive up in a man’s driveway and take his wife and his firstborn than that old car setting up on jacks.”

Safety is the minimum obligation a citizen owes his neighbor, and its been the first concern of the city’s campaign, Rhodes said. But even on that count, he has encountered some resistance.

“Both instances of health hazards were probably the toughest (cases) I had to deal with,” he said. “I mean, we even found dead rats.

“In one case, I had to get the county health department to come out and help me convince the people that they’ve got to clean this thing up. The county sent a letter, and when I took it out to them, they cleaned it up.”

Most of the city’s letters, though, have addressed aesthetic issues, Rhodes added, such as overgrown and junky backyards.

“One man’s treasure is another man’s junk,” Rhodes said. “Sometimes I just have to get tunnel vision and say, ‘Your neighbors are complaining and they don’t like it, and, whether you know them or not, you’ve got to live with them. So I suggest you clean this thing up or we’re going to clean it up for you and send you the bill.'”

City Administrator Steven Garrett said Hillsboro has many clear regulations that are easy to interpret, but admitted deciding between “attractive” and “unattractive” is more subjective.

“When you get to defining ‘attractive,’ that’s where the debate between the individual and community comes out,” he said.

“I’ve been in a situation where what I thought was attractive wasn’t generally perceived that way by others. I guess instead of stressing attractive, I think we should stress ‘not hideous.’

“I do believe neighbors owe neighbors safety and something that doesn’t destroy the feel of the neighborhood,” Garrett added. “I think the city believes that, too, because that’s where zoning comes in.

“The easy answer is, don’t make your place a nuisance. If you have a place where vermin can collect-and in our heightened awareness of West Nile Virus, mosquitoes-it become more and more a safety issue. That’s the base.”

Some who have resisted the city’s campaign say the issue is more about the way the city went about notifying them than the need to clean up an area.

Rhodes said he feels the city has been more than reasonable-as long as the property owner was willing to discuss options.

“The city has really helped a lot of people,” Rhodes said.

In many cases, “help” has meant extending the deadline for the cleanup to occur.

Also, property owners can use city trucks on the weekend to load brush and other materials.

In one case, when an out-of-town owner came on Monday and city trucks weren’t available, Rhodes brought his personal trailer to the property.

“If you want the equipment for nothing, tell me and I’ll bring it to you on Friday and we’ll pick it up on Monday,” Rhodes said. “We’ll haul your junk away and not charge you a dime.

“We’ve really tried to help people who needed help and asked for it,” he added. “I know we’ve done a lot of things for older people who just didn’t have the means or the way to take care of something. They’d call me, and shucks, we just sent the city people in and did it for no charge.”

In cases where property owners could afford to clean up a situation but refuse to, the city has done the work and billed the property owner.

“Our labor rates are $25 an hour and $50 an hour on our equipment,” Rhodes said.

“There’s been two or three that refused to do it, and we cleaned it up and sent them a bill, and put it on their utility bill. It’s either pay us or we’ll get your water shut off.

“You don’t like to do that,” he added. “From the way I look at it, that’s creating somewhat of a police state and you just don’t want to do it.”

At the same time, ordinances with no firm and consistent procedures for enforcement are useless, and Rhodes is unapologetic about his role.

“I just tell them our city fathers have developed ordinances for the good of the whole community and not just you,” he said. “I have no choice but to enforce the ordinance that says you’ve got to clean this place up. That’s my responsibility. If you want to argue, don’t argue with me. I’m just the messenger.”

Garrett said from his perspective the campaign has gone well, for the most part.

“We’ve had some standouts who have not seen eye to eye with us, but that’s something we have to work harder on,” he said.

The campaign may seem more like a “crackdown” simply because of the caseload that developed when the city did not follow through in years past, Garrett said.

“That we haven’t been able to effectively enforce those rules in the past, and now we’re insisting on it, causes a little bit of grief on both parts-the property owner and the city,” he said.

“Nobody likes to get a letter from the city, but most folks have said, ‘Yes, I concur, there is a problem.”

“We try to go the friendly reminder route to begin with.”

The question of what a property owner owes his neighbor is not always easy to answer, he added. But most people would admit the obligation is legitimate.

“It comes down to the whole idea of a balance between the American individual and community,” Garrett said. “I come down just a little bit more on the community side, that you do owe your neighbor and your community something.”

He said zoning laws cover most aesthetic issues, and public-nuisance laws take care of safety issues.

“The thing about it is, these things have to be enforced, and that’s where it starts to get unpopular,” he said.

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