America the Messy Yard Police State

Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to no longer hear appeals in code cases

I didn't know that Maricopa County had messy yard laws?????


Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to no longer hear appeals in code cases

by Sean Holstege - Nov. 5, 2010 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors no longer wants to get between owners of blighted properties and their neighbors.

The board took an unusual step Wednesday when it voted to delegate responsibility for judging code-violation appeals to a panel of appointees. Supervisors have fought political and legal battles for months to protect their authority over other county agencies, but on Wednesday they cast a rare split vote, 3-1.

The controversy revolves around whether neighborhood disputes should be resolved administratively or thrashed out publicly by the board of supervisors.

This week's action means the appointed Board of Adjustment will be the final arbiter when a property owner disputes the finding of a county code-enforcement officer. A new state law authorized Maricopa County to change procedures.

The county Board of Adjustment interprets zoning regulations. The panel routinely hears petitions for zoning variances, minor property-line changes and easement disputes. Each elected supervisor appoints a panelist to represent each district. The panel is composed of zoning attorneys and neighborhood activists familiar with property-rights issues.

Code-enforcement officers issue about 1,200 violations a year, Assistant County Manager Joy Rich said. Most violations involve cluttered properties that pose a health or environmental problem. Other cases have to do with non-permitted uses such as day-care operations, light industrial shops or homeowners who raise farm animals in residential areas.

On average, owners contest about 20 cases a month to a hearing officer, Rich said. Elected supervisors have typically heard two or three appeals a month, their staff said.

The problem for north Valley supervisor Andy Kunasek, who pushed for the change, is that the appeals often are resolved politically, not rationally.

"Over the last several years it has bothered me that we are less than uniform," Kunasek said. "If you live in (Supervisor) Mary Rose (Wilcox's) district you can do what you want and if you live in (Supervisor) Don (Stapley's) district you have the book thrown at you for not flying the flag high enough."

By convention, supervisors have deferred to the member in whose district a problem property exists because that politician has a better understanding of the neighborhood and is more familiar with constituents' needs.

For Kunasek, the issue is a matter of keeping lawmaking and judging apart. If people don't like how a nation's laws are enforced, they don't go to Congress for a judicial hearing, they go to court, he said.

"I don't want my judges being political. I want judges making decisions based on the facts," he said, adding that too often supervisors are swayed by emotional appeals.

Wilcox was the lone dissenter in Wednesday's vote. She said she doesn't think there was a problem that needed fixing.

"We are abdicating our authority," Wilcox said. "Sometimes we have to be a judge or a mediator. Sometimes the bureaucracy doesn't always see the bigger picture."

She said that as a result of tough issues being resolved by a volunteer appointed panel, some residents will find it harder to get help. Wilcox reasoned that appointees will be more intimidated by county bureaucrats and that often politicians can work out compromises that improve the blight but don't burden the owner.

"Traditionally, these are really hard cases," she said. "Just because a case is hard doesn't mean we should give up on it."

Kunasek said the codes were in place to protect neighbors and "if they aren't enforced, the neighbors get hurt."

The county will revisit the policy in six months. Rich said her office would report then on how the code-enforcement cases have been resolved.

Reporter Yvonne Wingett contributed to this article.


America the Messy Yard Police State