New Scappoose city ordinance wants to put a stop to bad behavior at problem properties

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Scappoose Police Chief Doug Greisen walks through the overgrown backyard of a vacant home in Scappoose. Police have secured the entrances, but hope the new ordinances will hold property owners accountable for keeping the premises clean and safe.The upstairs room in the empty house has a shag carpet of cigarette butts, warped and water-stained magazines, crushed aluminum cans and other trash. Downstairs, a ceiling tile bulges and graffiti covers the walls.

The house, located in a lonely field near apartment buildings in Scappoose, has been a “problem house” for years, says Scappoose Police Chief Doug, but he hopes two new city ordinances will take it off the department’s “to do” list.

Ordinances 825 and 826 are both nuisance ordinances, and address slightly different issues. Ordinance 825, passed under an emergency clause in February, deals with vacant buildings — some of which have been broken into and used as the site of illegal activities, Greisen said. Police can now secure these buildings and hold property owners accountable for keeping them both safe and clean. In the case of bank-owned foreclosed homes, the city can now require these actions of the banks too, said City Manager Jon Hanken.

Ordinance 826 is a little more complex.

Passed at a Scappoose City Council meeting March 18, the ordinance states that if police are called to the same property three times in a 90-day period to deal with class A drug or sexual abuse misdemeanors or felonies, then the property could wind up on the road to being labeled a “crime property.” This means a nuisance is declared and the police notify the property owner in writing, beginning a process that could end in the courtroom.

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - The city of Scappooses two new ordinances could address this long-vacant property in Scappoose where police have found evidence of squatters and drug use. Lisa Smith, a former city planner, has concerns about the ordinance. She worries about potential unintended consequences, fearing the ordinance could be abused and property owners unfairly targeted.

“Everything is well and good until you look at the ordinance one day and say, ‘We didn’t see this coming,’” she said after the meeting. Members of the council, she said, “are all nice people, but stuff happens.”

“There’s always the danger of unfair use,” said Scappoose Municipal Court Judge Nicholas Wood. But he believes that with this ordinance there will be little chance for abuse.

“[The ordinance] doesn’t preclude discussion,” he said. “It puts land owners in a position to mitigate a situation... You have a delineated process and there are still burdens of proof and evidence.”

Also, the chance of a property being charged with three major crimes in a 90 day period is pretty rare, he said. He expects few properties will fall under the ordinance.

To Greisen it’s a matter of holding property owners accountable to what happens on their property.

Wood agrees. “You have a responsibility too and you can’t just turn a blind eye that these things are going on, on your property.”

When the two ordinances, crafted by Greisen, were first proposed in February, only City Councilor Donna Gedlich was ready to approve them “as is.” The other councilors felt the crime property ordinance included far too many crimes and gave the average police officer too much authority. They wanted a “crime property” process to begin with the chief of police.

These ordinances would not allow the city to simply go around and shut down properties, the city’s legal counsel Jeff Bennett reminded the councilors.

“The city doesn’t close properties, the city just starts the process,” he said. When it comes to the designation of a property as a “crime property,” he said, “We don’t want a city making this decision, we want a judge making this decision.”

To Greisen it’s a question of community safety and quality of life.

“It’s the livability,” he said. “What do you want next door?”

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