City tries new technique on old eyesores

Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2002

Junk cars on blocks parked in driveways, broken down appliances left to rust on lawns, piles of yard waste, garbage and other debris rotting in backyards -- the city of Kenai has been cracking down on these and other code violations this year in an attempt to clean up eyesores and health and safety risks around town.

"It's been escalating over the years," said city council member Pat Porter, who has supported increased code enforcement.

"Kenai is a city that we need to be proud of anywhere that you go in it. We have ordinances and codes in the books to protect our community."

The Kenai Municipal Code has several health and safety and public nuisance regulations that stipulate some things even private property owners can't do or store on their property. People who violate the code and do not remedy the situation when requested to can be cited -- up to $500 each day the violation persists.

In the past, the city's administration dealt with junk cars, garbage storage and similar code violations on a complaint-driven basis. Someone would complain to the city that a neighbor had old furniture or trash in their yard and the city would then look into it. The city's building inspector would investigate and document the violation.

The city would then write a letter to the offender, giving them 30 days to remedy the situation. If the violation wasn't taken care of, another letter was written. If it still wasn't fixed, the case would be turned over to the legal department where it could go to court.

"It was a long, drawn out process that did not work well," said Marilyn Kebschull, city planner.

The time and effort required to deal with code violations was a drain on city employees who had other work to do. In the old system, it fell to the planning department to write the warning letters, deal with documentation and take complaints. Kebschull said she used to spend at least an hour a day on code violations. Taking code violations to court could be costly and time consuming as well.

To make matters worse, from an efficiency standpoint, complaints have been increasing. According to Kebschull, in 1998, the city dealt with 30 cases of code violation complaints. So far this year, it has had 46.

"I think when things get cleaned up, people have higher expectations," Kebschull said of the increase. "When things are nice, people like to keep it that way."

The city doesn't require a complainant to leave their name when making a code violation complaint. "What seems amazing is we have been receiving more complaints from neighbors," Porter said. "It's almost like people are saying 'let's do this, let's fix this up.' (The system) was complaint driven, and people are real hesitant to call and complain for fear that it might make bad neighbor relations. And the truth is, if they've got something that's not right in their yard, it shouldn't make any difference who reports it. It just should be taken care of."

Six months ago, the city instituted a new program to better take care of the problem of code violations. It hired John Parker as its code enforcement officer. Parker now takes complaints, documents violations and oversees remediation efforts.

The planning department still receives some complaints, but it can now forward them to Parker and he does the legwork. Another big change in the system is that the process is no longer just complaint driven.

Complaints are still taken and investigated, but Parker now investigates violations on his own without receiving a complaint first.

This is bad news and good news for Kenai residents who may be in violation of the city code. On one hand, there's a higher chance they will be caught and required to do something about it. On the other hand, Parker has the time to work with violators and get the problem taken care of without it going to court.

In the old system, the city employees who dealt with violations didn't have the time and resources to work closely with violators. Now Parker can contact violators in person, talk to them about the problem and work with them on setting a reasonable time period for getting the infraction cleaned up. Once the violation is taken care of, Parker sends the person a thank you letter in appreciation of their cooperation.

"The city is not just running out citing people," Parker said. "They wanted a liaison to look at the infractions, talk to people and seek voluntary compliance."

So far, the new system seems to be working.

"Because we have the staff now, it's easier. (The city's administration) doesn't deal with it," Kebschull said. "I think knocking on the door and letting people know face-to-face works better."

Parker said he is fair to the people he deals with and tries to work with them to avoid sending the case to court. Since he's been the code enforcement officer, he's dealt with 50 code violation cases and only three have resulted in citations, he said.

"People have been very reasonable and cooperative," he said. "I think it's a good program. If I handle people with respect and understanding and work with people, I find that people are willing to work with me. So far it has been well received."

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