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Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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Nuisances targeted in city
Monday, December 23, 2013
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Martinsville officials are stepping up efforts to rid the city of nuisances on private properties, including ones in backyards.
Ordinances ban outdoor irritations such as offensive odors, high grass and accumulations of worn-out construction materials, furniture, appliances and inoperable vehicles. Such things can be fire or safety hazards.
City officials generally have relied on complaints from the public to find out about nuisance ordinance violations. They frequently have said they lack the resources, including enough staff, to travel the city looking for violations.
Five years ago, the city fire marshal’s and inspections offices had a total of seven employees. Due to budget cuts since then, the offices have combined and there are only four employees in that office, according to Ted Anderson, who now is both the fire marshal and building official.
Anderson said the city gets as many as “several hundred” complaints about nuisance properties per month. Complaints are received throughout the year but are especially numerous in the summer, he said.
At times, employees who do property maintenance inspections have been up to six weeks behind in responding to complaints due to the high volume and their other job duties, including fire and building inspections, he added.
The city still will respond to complaints. However, about 10 city employees outside the fire marshal’s/inspections office will be trained to spot nuisance ordinance violations. They will be employees such as the community policing officer and certain public works supervisors who often are in neighborhoods and talk with people, Anderson said.
When they spot violations, he said, they will attach notices of the violations to the door of the main structure on the properties. Notices will list violations they saw as well as a date on which the property will be reinspected — within 3-5 days probably, he said.
“For consistency and fairness,” Anderson said, the same employee will do the second inspection because he or she will know what to look for.
Nuisances that remain when reinspections are done will be removed by the city at the property owner’s expense. For example, high grass will be mowed and then the city will send the owner a bill, Anderson said.
The minimum charge is $225, but the bill could be more, depending on how much time and effort city employees put into the cleanup, he said.
Bills will go up, with fines imposed, for repeated violations which city crews remove at the same site within a fiscal year. For instance, Anderson said, for the second violation, the property owner will be billed for the cleanup cost — at least $225 — plus an extra $50. For the third and subsequent violations, the owner will be billed the cleanup cost plus another $200, he said.
Fines are intended to be “a deterrent so people will take care of their own properties,” Anderson said.
Also, the city will step up its efforts to collect bills owed for violations, such as by attaching liens to properties, he said.
Despite people’s complaints about neighboring backyards, the city generally has not tried to apply nuisance ordinances to backyards — until now.
“What people can see from rights of way and public view obviously is more important,” Anderson said.
That usually is limited to front and side yards, but if a backyard can be seen from a right of way, officials can apply nuisance laws to the backyard, he said.
Due to people’s private property rights, inspectors are limited in how they can visit properties. Anderson said they can make only normal movements, such as walking up a sidewalk like a mail carrier would.
As an inspector, “I can’t walk around a house just because I want to,” he said, unless he first gets permission from the owner or a search warrant.
He said the city will start looking at backyards when a neighbor makes a complaint and allows an inspector onto his property to see what he (the neighbor) sees from his property.
But to pursue action against the problem backyard will require additional effort, Anderson indicated.
Complaints about backyards will be prioritized. The four worst backyards in the course of a year will be brought to Martinsville City Council’s attention. The council then “will have the opportunity” to declare those backyards as public nuisances, Anderson said, emphasizing it legally can do that.
Basically, he said, four was chosen as the number of backyards to bring to the council’s attention at one time to make it easier for city officials instead of having to deal with properties individually.
Having the council’s declaration will make it easier for inspectors to take legal action against the properties, he said.
Actual city inspectors — not the employees who will be trained to assist them — will examine backyards, Anderson said.
Those inspectors, he said, are himself, Deputy Building Official Kris Bridges and Deputy Fire Marshal/Property Maintenance Inspector Andy Powers.
The stepped-up efforts are set to be effective Jan. 1, Anderson said.
“We are taking this seriously,” he said, emphasizing that everyone will be treated alike, including any city employees who break the rules.