America the Messy Yard Police State

Mesa tyrants to pass more messy yard laws!

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Mesa may broaden law in effort to fight urban blight

by Gary Nelson - Jul. 10, 2010 07:17 AM

The Arizona Republic

On Steve Richter's scale of crummy Mesa properties, it ranks as "one of the worst of the worst."

The front yard of the abandoned double-wide on North Silverton Street is adorned with a derelict red sports car, half of the trailer's windows are broken out, the yard littered with junk furniture and other trash, the swimming pool rancid.

Richter, Mesa's code-compliance supervisor, surveyed the mess while checking to make sure a recently installed fence was keeping people out of the property in the northwestern part of town.

"We want the building secured, the car removed, the property and the junk cleaned," he said.

But the tenants are gone and the owner is elusive. Public records list several addresses. One of Richter's nine code-compliance officers will have to visit each one of them.

It's just one battle in Mesa's endless war against urban blight, a war made more intense by a recession that has turned thousands of ex-residents into economic refugees and their former homes into eyesores, if not hazards.

City officials hope to escalate the war later this year with a revised nuisance code, even as enforcement lags in some parts of town because of budget cuts.

The discussion was to have been heard last week by a City Council committee, but Chairwoman Dina Higgins of east Mesa postponed the meeting because she wanted more details before moving ahead. The topic is likely to resurface this summer.

The committee was to have considered an awards program for exemplary homes and a third proposal requiring banks to register and maintain properties that have been abandoned by people who fall behind on mortgages.

The nuisance-code changes, in general, would make more people responsible for a list of violations that would be expanded to include untrimmed palm fronds, graffiti on trailers and dumpsters, and possibly even regulations on outdoor clotheslines.

A new section would define "responsible parties" as those who know or have reason to know of violations on property under their partial or complete control, whether they're owners, renters, property managers or occupants.

And in an effort to crack down on street-corner "bandit" signs, the city would make the businesses that advertise on them - not just the people who stick the signs in the ground - responsible for the violations.

The changes have been in the works since Code Compliance merged early last year with the Building Safety and Planning departments to create a Department of Development and Sustainability. Christine Zielonka, the department's director, said in a memo that the proposals resulted from a detailed study of the code and how it has been enforced.

Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, a member of Higgins' Community and Neighborhood Services Committee, said Zielonka and her staff were on the right track with the proposals they floated last week.

"Overall, it was positive," Kavanaugh said. "I think the awards program that they're proposing is a good tool in dealing with code enforcement. This kind of replicates something we've done on Dobson Ranch. The association recognizes homeowners who do an exceptional job of improving their property. That positive reinforcement is helpful."

But if an honors program would be the carrot, a tougher code would be the stick, and Kavanaugh said staff should use the council's summer break to seek other ideas for shoring up the law.

For his part, Kavanaugh wants tougher rules on the number of inoperable vehicles that can be stored on lots not zoned for junkyards.

Kavanaugh and Zielonka said code enforcement is becoming more difficult not just because of the expanding caseload but because the code-compliance staff is now almost entirely funded by the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

That means their enforcement - cruising neighborhoods and writing up violations - is confined to Mesa's CDBG area, which runs through the central part of the city from the Tempe limits to Gilbert Road.

Outside of that area, code compliance has been on a complaint-only basis since early this year. That's how the decrepit trailer on North Silverton Street came to the city's attention.

One item that did not appear in Zielonka's list of proposals: New tools for dealing with fire-gutted or otherwise uninhabitable homes and buildings that sometimes can sit for years, scarring a neighborhood and breeding vermin.

Late last year, for example, a run-down motel on Main Street just west of Power Road was heavily damaged by fire. The ravaged building still sits behind a chain-link fence. Just a few blocks to the west a former restaurant, also destroyed by fire, is likewise fenced off.

Councilmen Alex Finter and Scott Somers have been looking into ways the city could, if need be, demolish such buildings and bill the property owners, but Finter said it's a delicate balance between community needs and private-property rights.

"The housing stock is getting old and we're having more and more structure fires," Finter said. "We need a process in place that fairly deals with folks but is also fair to the neighbors."

More on this topic

Proposed changes

Among proposed changes to Mesa's public-nuisance and property-maintenance code:

Define a property's "responsible party" as anyone who has partial or complete control of it and makes that person liable for penalties.

Require graffiti to be removed from trash receptacles, trailers and other objects, not just from buildings.

Specify that damage to buildings, not just natural deterioration, be dealt with in timely fashion.

Business owners named on "bandit" signs, not just the people who illegally place them, will be held responsible and can be cited.

Limit garage sales to 12 days in a calendar year and no more than three days each. Currently, more than four garage sales a year are regarded as a business activity.

Require removal of dead palm fronds.

Specify that covering a disabled vehicle with a tarp or a car cover does meet the requirement to screen such vehicles from public view.

Allow fines to be reduced by the amount it costs to abate a violation.

 
 

America the Messy Yard Police State