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July 15, 2014

County leaders pondering property ordinance direction

MILLEDGEVILLE — Today's Baldwin County Commissioners work session will address the Safe Property Standards ordinance proposal that riled citizens to fill the county courthouse for a public hearing two weeks ago.

Nearly 90 citizens crammed the third floor Baldwin County Commissioners' gathering chambers inside and out to let their opinions be heard.

No vote was taken July 1, as the commissioners took citizen’s feedback.

County Commission Chairman Sammy Hall said the board will talk about the next step in today's 5:15 p.m. work session before the 6 p.m. regular meeting.

“We want to bring it up while it's fresh,” Hall said. “We want to see what commissioners’ thoughts are on where we go from here. Do we move it along, or do we back up?”

There will be no vote at the work session.

The county hasn't edited the ordinance proposal since the public hearing.

County Attorney David McRee said the ordinance underwent four to six changes prior to July 1 though nothing has been touched since.

Hall said the board will discuss what portions to add or subtract.

“We'll see what happens after tomorrow,” McRee said Monday.

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 problems with dilapidated, abandoned houses and care of premise issues are the focus of the ordinance and occur in every district.

County residents not supportive of the proposal feel the ordinance will go beyond just extreme cases and infringe upon private property rights.

Some feel the county has sufficient ordinances on the books that aren't enforced or asked for better intent and more focus to the proposal.

Others cited an existing county law that enables the governmental entity to confiscate property in certain situations.

Hall said the county has no interest in taking someone's property.

“That's not our goal in any way,” he said. “We want people to clean up their property whether it's a dilapidated house or a premises that's unhealthy, unsafe and a nuisance.”

One citizen said the county should concentrate on dilapidated houses as a first priority. Several property ordinance supporters begged for help against blighted homes affecting their property values and quality of life.

Outdoor storage of inoperable vehicles, building materials, rubbish, garbage, equipment or other similar items and tree debris seem to be the most polarizing ordinance topics with county citizens.

“Those people that were against it had some valid points, but at the same time, there were a number of people in favor of it,” Hall said. “We need to address some of the issues, but it's a very sensitive topic.”

Court system officials told the county they lacked the necessary tools to prosecute individuals to help clean these areas.

If the ordinance eventually passes, the citation will 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.

“Hopefully, the county enforcement officer would have a conversation with the land owner and spur them to correct the situation on their own without further action just based on knowing this enforcement tool was there for the county to use,” McRee said. “Even if someone were cited, they would still have the opportunity to take corrective action prior to anything going to court.”

If adopted in its current form, the document includes a 180-day grace period before the ordinance becomes local law.

“I can't say at this point what direction we will go in, but that's our purpose to talk about it,” Hall said.

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