City staff will take care of code violations instead of suing homeowners

TIGARD -Are your neighbor's weeds getting too tall? Is garbage piling up outside?

The city has a new way to deal with code violations: Either you take care of it, or we will.

Last week the City Council approved an amendment that allows the city to go after property owners who violate city nuisance codes and gives city staff the power to fix problems themselves if necessary.

'It's one more way for us to help people reach compliance,' said Susan Hartnett, assistant community development director for the city. 'We want people to comply, and we want that to happen for them and us as quickly as possible with the least amount of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. We want to get to a point where compliance has been met.'

In the past the city had to take nuisance violators to court if the problem wasn't dealt with.

But often, Hartnett said, the reasons people don't comply with nuisance issues is that they simply can't afford it.

Last year the city received 184 complaints from neighbors about nuisance violations. About 30 percent of the violators didn't address the issue after being notified by the city, and many of those said it was because of financial or physical issues.

'Life circumstances happen,' Harnett said. 'Maybe it's their mother's house, but she is in the hospital with a broken hip and the son who owns the house lives in Bend and can't get up here to mow the lawn.'

In a situation like that it might not be worth sending the family to court, Harnett said, and under the new code the city can work with the family to get the problem fixed.

The city now has the option to do the work itself - mow the lawn, remove the trash, etc. - and send the family a bill.

'It expands our ability to recoup the public cost to solving these private property matters,' Hartnett said.

It was gross

One of the worst nuisance violators in recent memory was a home on Southwest Varns Street at Southwest 72nd Avenue.

'The grass and weeds were four feet high,' said Albert Shields, who handles code compliance for the city. 'There were blackberries and God knows what else. Pallets of wood, cans and bottles of motor oil and other liquids that couldn't be identified (were strewn about the yard). We had to treat them as hazardous substances. It was really gross.'

The home had been abandoned, and was in the process of foreclosure, Shields said.

The bank had yet to take ownership of the house and couldn't legally come and manage the property. Meanwhile, the months flew by, the grass grew, and neighbors became upset.

'Nobody had been there doing any maintenance from April to August when neighbors finally called the city,' Shields said. 'By that time, they were very upset.'

Shields worked to contact the homeowner to come deal with the issue, but the property owner had moved out of state and couldn't afford to take care of the extensive work that was needed.

The homeowner eventually gave the city permission to go on the property and fix the problem and bill the property owner.

The home was cleared of debris, Shields said, but under the old code if a property owner couldn't be found, there is little the city could do.

'Without the new abatement authority our hands would have been tied,' Shields said. 'We would have had to explain to neighbors that there was nothing we can do, or they can do and it is just going to be like this. Nobody wants to hear that.

'Now, if we find that there is nobody around willing to stand up and mow the lawn, maybe the old owner is gone but the bank doesn't own it yet and the house is in limbo, we can get a warrant and come in and mow it so the neighborhood doesn't suffer,' Shields said.

The idea is to address issues before they become a health risk or begin to affect property values.

The new changes aren't expected to be used often, only in special circumstances, Hartnett said. Homeowners will continue to receive written warnings from the city and the court option is still available if necessary.

'It is not the city's intent to offer abatement as a service to the community,' Shields said. 'Rather, it's a tool to use on occasion when the situation calls for it, like a disabled homeowner who is unable to do it. We can probably work with them using our authority … It might be useful for him for us to abate it and send him a bill. It's much cheaper for him than court and he knows its taken care of.'

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