What is the purpose of a “code enforcement program”? In cities, the legislative body adopts policies and regulations designed to “protect the public,” and the public should be held accountable for compliance. Sometimes these policies can be open to interpretation, thus making enforcement a challenge.
For example, the Lompoc Municipal Code says, “Excessive, unnecessary, or annoying noise can jeopardize the health and welfare of the citizens and degrade the quality of life.” The problem is that “excessive, unnecessary, or annoying noise” is very subjective, and one person’s noise is another person’s music.
Another section states, “It is a public nuisance for a person owning, leasing, occupying, managing, or having the charge of any premises to maintain such premises in a manner resulting in the following conditions: A danger to public safety and welfare.”
The city provides a more objective definition of “danger to public safety” on the Code Compliance, Neighborhood Preservation page of the city website. It states, “Weeds and grass in excess of 1 foot in height constitute an unsightly appearance, is dangerous to public safety and welfare, and is likely to harbor rats and other vermin.”
In areas that are managed by homeowner associations (HOAs), rules are developed by the owners of the property in the development. These areas are frequently well maintained and have both the cooperation of the occupants, and in some cases strong enforcement action by the HOA mitigates poorly maintained units.
There has been an ongoing public concern in Lompoc about “code enforcement” in areas that are not managed by HOAs. Some feel that the city needs a major cleanup and more proactive enforcement of existing ordinances; others feel they have a right to keep piles of junk on their property and never maintain the vegetation in their yards.
To add to this problem, there are many absentee landowners of both commercial and residential properties, some abandoned homes, and owners who just don’t care how their commercial properties are maintained.
Recently the Lompoc City Council conducted a public hearing concerning a report by the city attorney that, “The city had received complaints from the city’s solid waste collector of the difficulty in driving through the alley of 1128 North A St. (property) due to the overhanging tree on the property. The complaints stretched back several months. The city notified the property owner, advised of the violations and necessary corrective actions. Several months later, the same complaints were received from the solid waste collector.”
I am very familiar with this property; it is located across the street from an elementary school on a busy street, and almost two decades ago I filed a complaint with the city concerning the same conditions in the front yard of this property. The city cleaned up the property and placed an assessment on it to recover the costs if the property was sold.
It was then and still is an abandoned single-family residence, and apparently the owners have no interest in either maintaining or selling the property to someone who would renovate it.
As I travel around our city, I have noticed many other residential and commercial properties that appear to violate one or more municipal code provisions, such as vegetation, including dry grass, dead shrubs, dead trees, and overgrown grass or weeds; operating a business from their home that includes delivery of materials or the storage of commercial vehicles; and parking numerous vehicles in what was once the landscaping of their front yard.
Each of these properties impacts the quality of life for their neighbors and has an adverse impact on the value of neighboring properties. Some create serious fire hazards in that should a fire occur, it would rapidly grow and threaten neighboring properties. Others create health hazards due to rodent and insect infestation that spread to adjoining properties.
The current enforcement action on the North A Street property began in October last year; now four months later, after failing to receive a response from the property owner, the city had to get an abatement order from the court, commit more than $5,000 of general fund resources to clean up the property, and now will wait several years to recover the money if the property is sold. The latest action was in addition to previous cleanup actions over the last 20 years.
It seems that “pride of ownership” is a thing of the past; some feel they have a right to pile old cars, erect makeshift shelters in front of their homes, park several vehicles in the front yard, and let the vegetation overtake the property; others have pride in the upkeep of their homes and businesses.
Ron Fink writes to the Sun from Lompoc. Send a letter for publication to [email protected].