For the past three months, the St. Helens City Council chambers has served as a makeshift soapbox for disgruntled neighbors, flustered and overwhelmed homeowners, verbose lawyers, the city's sole code enforcement officer and other city officials, who all want to talk about the same thing — junk.
Since August, the city has been cracking down on city code violations that compromise the aesthetics of homes within St. Helens city limits.
Twenty-two properties have been declared "nuisances" by city officials for having too much junk in the front yard. Three of those properties will have yard debris removed by a city-contracted professional, the cost of which will be covered by liens against the offending properties. That action follows other city efforts to encourage the property owners take responsibility for cleaning their properties, to no avail.
Several chapters of the city's municipal code define what classifies as "junk" or debris, and what materials must be cleared from a yard for a homeowner to remain in compliance.
The increase in the city-led effort to clean up properties is the result of two factors — continued public complaints and the installation of a full-time code enforcement officer.
In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the City Council approved the creation of a full-time code enforcement officer position after one year of only having a two-day-per-week position. Prior
to that, the position had been entirely absent for several years.
In August, St. Helens Police Department Officer Jamin Coy was transferred to the position and began working with Bob Johnston, the city's building inspector, to step up proactive efforts to clean up the yards of some St. Helens residents.
Previously, code enforcement was approached in a more reactive fashion, Coy explained. With one officer reporting only two days a week, there were not sufficient resources to address problems before they reached monumental levels, he said.
When he took over in a full-time capacity, Coy said he did as much as he could to get ahead of the problem, but had spent a lot of time playing catchup by dealing with yards that have been known for having junk piles and unsafe conditions for years.
A long haul
The push to clean St. Helens yards has been a long haul.
In October, Johnston said he received complaints from residents that visitors flocking into the city for the annual Spirit of Halloweentown activities were driving past "unsightly" and "nasty" yards, which wasn't good for the city from a public relations perspective, he said.
Over the next four months, Coy engaged the worst offenders to start the cleanup process. He said he tried to work with offending residents throughout the process, and only used the citations as a last resort.
But just talking with many of the offending property owners wasn't enough. When the first round of citations and nuisance abatements went out in December, 12 properties had been cited. In February, 10 more citations went out. After the notices were sent from City Hall to residents, the results were mixed.
Some residents got straight to work, while others made appeals to the City Council to get a timing extension. Myriad factors contributed to the delays, from poor health to poor weather to a misunderstanding of the city's codes. The city approved one group extension for the first round of homeowners, giving residents until the end of February to achieve compliance. The city gave at least one resident two additional months.
Enforcement is not just about outward appearance though, Johnston explained; there is a public health component to consider. Standing water can attract mosquitoes, and piles of old wood or combustible materials can be a major fire and health hazard.
During a City Council meeting in early March, one irate neighbor demanded the city take more action to clean up a property she referred to as a known drug house on Plymouth Street. She said the yard was littered with condoms and needles.
Some residents peacefully asked for understanding from the City Council. One resident said he had the flu recently and, with the wet winter weather baring down, was unable to meet the deadline to comply.
Others, however, made no visible effort to clean up their messes, Johnston said, and the city plans to go after those homes by hiring contractors to clean up the yards, then passing the bill back to the offending residents.
Working through the backlog of homes needing attention will take time. Johnston brought small batches of nuisance abatements to each council meeting over the past few months, and plans to bring more in the future.
Coy recently left the code enforcement role in mid-March, however, returning to his job as a full-time police officer. Some of the backlog will have to wait for a new code enforcement to take the reins.
Police Chief Terry Moss said his department hired a new code enforcement officer this week, who is expected to begin April 3.
The definition of "junk" according to the St. Helens municipal code 8.12.070(1)(a), includes old car parts, old machinery and spare parts, metal, glass, paper, old lumber, waste material and abandoned personal property. Those items should not be stored in open, visible areas of property.
When properties have been cited by a code enforcement officer, and the homeowner makes no effort to clean up the property, the officer can refer the property to the City Council. Once the City Council reviews photos of the property and an official account of actions taken by code enforcement and the homeowner, it can declare the property a nuisance. Within 30 days of the declaration, the homeowner must clean the property or make an appeal to the City Council. The city can have the property forcibly cleaned after that period of time, then place a lien on the property to recover the cost of the cleanup.