The Union Recorder


July 2, 2014

Proposed safe property ordinance hearing loads courthouse

MILLEDGEVILLE — For the most part, Baldwin County residents want no part of the proposed Safe Property Standards Ordinance.

Nearly 90 citizens filled the third floor Baldwin County Commissioners' courthouse gathering chambers inside and out Tuesday for a public hearing.

No vote was taken, as the commissioners took residents’ opinions into account.

Several residents said they felt the ordinance goes beyond just extreme cases and infringes upon private property rights.

John Weaver opposed the ordinance, feeling the county had sufficient ordinances on the books that aren't enforced.

Weaver owns retail property and didn't think punishing the owner for poor upkeep by tenants sounds fair.

George Pennington asked for better intent and more focus to the proposal.

“You are starting to get into people's lives. We live in the county for a reason. If we wanted to live in a restricted neighborhood, we would,” Pennington said. “Listen to your constituents and put some more time between now and the time this thing is voted on.”

Jonah Arnold said enforce the ordinances better.

“We are owed a dialogue about the deficiencies in the current ordinances,” he said.

Since the county already has a law to confiscate property in certain situations, Bill Williams said the enforcement officer should start tearing things down and moving things for the betterment of the county.

Gregg Kaufman spoke in favor of the ordinance citing a less than attractive property near his own coming into the county.

“The unkempt property was a less than positive message to visitors,” Kaufman said.

Richard Mueller trusts there would be common sense in property ordinance enforcement.

Peter Boylan said individuals give up their constitutional rights when they diminish rights of other citizens.

“When persons allow the appearance of their property to diminish the value of other's property or diminish the quality of the community, those persons have removed themselves from the protections of our constitution,” Boylan said.

Lyn McKnight said people didn't understand the government wouldn't infringe on property rights.

The county should concentrate on dilapidated houses first, McKnight suggested.

“On my street alone, 50 percent of the houses have been vacant for 40 years. If we don't pass something, it will be another 40. Approach it from an angle where people will understand and go along with it,” McKnight said.

The ordinance wording agitates people operating commercial areas, according to Bill Kent.

Clair Guy appreciated the public forum.

She said the county ought to bring its properties up to standard before asking citizens to do the same.

Commissioner Chairman Sammy Hall said the proposal isn't a done deal by any means. The ordinance should change based on the public hearing criticism.

“It's not our intent to infringe on anyone's rights,” Hall said. “There should be some reasonable ordinance we can agree on to solve this community issue without creating ill will among ourselves.”

County attorney David McRee said the ordinance underwent four to six changes in the last three weeks.

Anything adopted, if at all, would include a 180-day grace period before the ordinance becomes local law.

In theory, commissioners want Environmental Compliance Officer Marion Nelson to have better enforcement tools against junk-filled yards and blighted structures.

The ordinance's stated purpose is to establish minimum requirements and standards for premises and structures in order to promote and protect the public health, safety, convenience, order and general welfare of the citizens of the county.

“This article shall apply to all commercial, office, industrial, multi-family and single-family residential structures and premises and shall constitute the minimum requirements and standards for existing structures and premises,” the ordinance proposal says.

Nelson said dilapidated, abandoned houses and care of premise issues are the focus of the ordinance and generally cover all complaints the county receives. It's about health, safety, quality of life and aesthetics, according to the county's environmental compliance officer.

“The problem exists in every district in the county,” he said.

Nelson cited ongoing and past egregious junk issues the county couldn't deal with that affected property values and quality of life. Some were in residential areas and community entrance gateways.

“There are people who rely on the county to impose some reasonable standard to protect their property, way of life and quality of life,” Nelson added.

McRee said the court system told the county it lacked the necessary tools to prosecute individuals to help clean these areas.

If the ordinance eventually passes, the citation would go to the solicitor's office and then pass to magistrate court. Nothing forces the judge to take up every case.

Every complaint doesn't result in enforcement action.

“It's not one person making a decision and boom it's over. Everyone's individual rights would be protected,” McRee said.

The county attorney cited several changes in the open or outdoor storage section.

Items such as inoperable vehicles, building materials, rubbish, garbage and equipment must cause a health hazard to be a violation.

The proposal only applies to items visible from the public right-of-way or from any adjoining property.

Inoperable vehicles are exempted as long as they are being actively restored or repaired.

Tree debris can't be on the ground for more than 30 days unless a property is more than 150 feet from an existing residence. Natural disasters like recent ice storm receive a six-month exemption.

Commissioner Henry Craig said the process remains open, and commissioners haven't stopped listening.

“We will take everything you've said under consideration. If you have suggestions about how to change things, bring it to us in writing or send us an email,” Hall said Tuesday.

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