A survey to get public feedback on what constitutes a nuisance and suggestions for nuisance enforcement is the next step after the city held its first nuisance workshop last week.
A packed house of concerned citizens attended the workshop, restricted to 30 minutes due to a scheduled planning & zoning public hearing the same night. City administrator Ray Walden and city attorney William Camm Seay provided a quick overview of existing ordinances before taking questions.
Walden also introduced nuisance officer Jarred Brown and new animal control officer Travis Roberts, whose position was added in the new budget. Brown previously performed both jobs.
Additional staff time committed to nuisance enforcement should help the city reach its goal of protecting public health, safety and welfare of people living, working and doing business in Salem, Walden said.
Effective code enforcement also promotes stable neighborhoods and property values while enhancing community pride, he told the crowd.
Current nuisance ordinances are divided into two main sections. One addresses public health and safety, including codes on animals and fowl, tall grass and weeds, abandoned property, solid waste and the operation of the police department.
Another chapter, Section 505, deals with dangerous buildings, including standards for report, vacation and demolition, duties of the building inspector and building commissioner and notice requirements.
“Something might not be pleasing to you, but from a legal standpoint, whether it constitutes a nuisance depends on how nuisances are defined in our city code,” Walden said. “What constitutes a nuisance is determined ultimately by our board of aldermen.”
The definition of a nuisance, as currently spelled out in Chapter 215 of the city code, includes weeds, grass or other rank vegetation over 10 inches tall, barking dogs, outdoor displays of merchandise and junk, things which cause an odor disagreeable to the surrounding neighborhood, emission of dense smoke, discarded tires, discarded appliances, obstructions to sidewalks, open storage of inoperable vehicles (unless located at a licensed car sales lot, repair shop or salvage yard) and stagnant water.
The code enforcement process begins when the code officer observes a violation or receives a complaint. Anyone can submit a complaint. They can remain anonymous or leave a name and number to be contacted. After an inspection is performed to confirm a violation exists on the property, the owner is notified and given seven to 10 days to correct the violation and an opportunity to request a hearing, Walden said.
A follow-up inspection is performed to verify the violation has been corrected. If it hasn’t, the city has a few options:
• In the case of debris like overgrown vegetation, cut and fallen trees and limbs, the city will abate the nuisance and charge the property owner a fee for the work, plus an administrative fee.
• For other types of nuisances, the property owner or resident can be issued a summons to appear in municipal court before a judge.
• In the case of inoperable or unlicensed vehicles, they will be towed at the owner’s expense.
Seay has been working with Cunningham, Vogel & Rost, a St. Louis law firm, on changes to the codes to improve enforcement and bring them into compliance with state statutes. Representatives will be invited to the next public workshop to explain the proposed changes.
In the meantime, the city will conduct a survey of residents, both online and with copies available at the city administrative building, to see what the public sees as nuisances and to submit suggestions for enforcement. The results will be shared at the next workshop, which will be scheduled with the law firm.
Seay said the new draft ordinances include a hearing process that moves more expeditiously.
“We are probably going to have to establish a nuisance court so that each week if we have somebody that objects to the violation we’ve posted, we can deal with that, have a hearing, move along and get the matter fixed, so that we can go in a clean it up if they haven’t done anything about it,” he said.
Drafts contain a completely new municipal code chapter on nuisances. The chapter is intended to comprehensively address any nuisance issue that may present itself, including procedures for abatement, he said.
“Individual sections are meant to flow together and interact with each other so the same procedure can be followed for any nuisance, which is a problem we have now,” Seay said. “We need some unity in our procedures that we don’t have.”
Dangerous buildings are covered in a separate section, with Walden serving as the hearing officer. The suggested nuisance hearing officer for other cases will be the director of public works, Seay said, “so we have someone readily accessible and we can have hearings on a regular basis.”
For grass, weeds and rank vegetation, statutes provide for a shorter abatement time of at least five days, where the Salem requirement is currently seven to 10 days. Other nuisances would still require 10 days’ notice, according to the draft ordinances.
The proposed ordinances provide a broad definition of what constitutes a public nuisance, borrowing language from various state statutes, case law and other municipal codes. “This law firm deals exclusively with municipal government,” Seay said. “They’ve had experience dealing with what can and can’t be done in the court system, so we’ve asked them to assist us in this particular program.”
Under the new ordinances, the city will have to follow the same procedures for every case and be able to document that each part of the process has been followed. The two nuisance officers have to document each step, take pictures and write reports.
“That’s time consuming. And that’s part of the reason I hope with the addition of another staff member, we can move these issues on a little bit,” Seay said.
He told the crowd, “This is a work in progress. We hired a law firm to help expedite it, but the most important part of this process is comments from you. Obviously there’s a lot of concern, and I’m glad to see a houseful of people. It’s important you send us your comments.”
Written comments can be dropped off at city administration offices “the sooner the better so we can start folding your comments into the process we intend to take forward,” Seay said.
In response to a question from the audience about tracking nuisance cases in the process, Walden said work is underway on an online database of complaints.
“You’ll be able to see the status of where that case is at in the pipeline,” he said. “We know that’s been an issue.”
City resident John Hambacker asked if nuisances that become a health issue would take priority over other issues like tall grass. Walden agreed that some nuisances need to be addressed sooner than later.
”In the new provisions, it will be spelled out that if it’s a health hazard, the notice requirements may allow us to jump in and do something immediately,” Seay said, delaying any hearing until later. “But if it’s a true health issue, those things are going to get addressed promptly.”
Hambacker said he is referring to an unabated nuisance near MacArthur in existence for six months. “Those of us living in the neighborhood are still concerned about it because it’s definitely a health hazard, most of us believe,” he said.
After the meeting, he said the nuisance is an abandoned house with two feet of water in the basement producing mosquito larvae. “I have complained and complained and complained about it, but no action has been taken,” he told The Salem News. “With this new ordinance, maybe something will be done.”
Hambacker also asked Walden if the city could help with nuisance animals.
“With the grass that’s growing up and the debris that’s around, are there going to be any purchases of traps for animals? Because we have groundhogs, armadillos and possums,” he said. “In the city you can’t shoot them. We need to address this. They’re breeding like rabbits.”
“We do have traps, and we try to take measures where we can, John,” Walden said. Seay said the nuisance officer would have to set them.