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‘A loss of freedom’

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Citizen code ordinance group has its say at council hearing

By Tris DeRoma

Citizens in Action, a group of residents looking to reform Los Alamos County’s nuisance ordinance told Los Alamos County Council Tuesday the ordinance is taking away the small-town sense of community.

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Many have complained that the ordinance, which was designed to promote beauty and eliminate safety hazards, is too heavy handed when it comes to residential properties, where enforcement officers are quick to write up frequent notices for minor infractions, yet they claim the same officers overlook more egregious offenses being committed by businesses and commercial development.

One of the group’s leaders, Heather Ortega, said many residents told them the ordinance made them feel they no longer have control over their own property.

“There’s a feeling of a loss of freedom… to have things and to do things in their private yards,” Ortega said. “Be it gardening, various flowers, strollers, bikes, toys, campers parked in their driveway, project vehicle cars, woodworking, landscaping choices, yard decor and people are very worried about their paint choices.”

For the past year, Citizens in Action has been gathering data, and seeking opinions from residents and county officials on how they can all make the nuisance ordinance more balanced and fair.

In the course of their research, co-leader Helen Milenski came across data that she said showed the county’s intent to ramp up enforcement of the nuisance code may be misguided.

She used survey results contained in the town’s 2016 Strategic Plan.

“It (stricter enforcement of the nuisance code) had been noted by members of the staff as well as the council that it was based on some of the responses to that survey that we were seeing this increase in enforcement,” Milenski said.

“...Apparently we’ve taken our guidance from 6 percent and 5 percent of the number of 403 participants in this survey, and that leads us to this increase in enforcement has been guided, at least in part from 24 participants in the survey and 23 participants in the survey who found this to be a serious problem.”

Los Alamos County officials also gave their side to the enforcement issue, too. County Manager Harry Burgess explained to the council and the public that the two full-time code enforcement officers are not under a quota system.

“Honestly, we didn’t have a number going into it that we could base or establish a quota on, and we did not discuss any quotas with our employees,” Burgess said.

Between May 8 and Sept. 25, the county’s two officers generated 1,005 notices between two officers working in Los Alamos and White Rock.

“It’s fairly approximate to what we predicted would be the case back in March of this year,” Burgess said to council.
Burgess also addressed the concern over anonymous complaints, where concern has been raised that neighbors with vendettas are abusing the county’s anonymous reporting system.

Burgess said that of the 1,005, notices generated between May and September, only 49 came from outside sources.

“Even if all of them were anonymous, and I can’t say that they were, that would be a relatively small number considering the number of properties our code officers visited,” Burgess said.

Councilor Chris Chandler asked Milenski and Ortega what to them, fair code enforcement would look like.

“Let’s say we get some code, we have a lot of  public input, we come up with a plan as to how we’re going to enforce it, then we start getting complaints. Then what happens,” Chandler said.

Ortega said she didn’t know that would happen.

“I personally think that you are not going to see those complaints from people if you involved the community. You’re numbers specifically show that this code is being driven by the county. Only 5 percent of the residents in this county are making complaints,” Ortega said.

Residents spoke for and against the nuisance ordinance, with a majority saying the county has to at least modify the ordinance to not be so excessive. However, there were some that wanted the county to keep up its efforts without change.

Resident Wayne Hardie repeated a list of commercial properties that have fallen into neglect, including the site of the former  Metzger’s gas station on Diamond Drive and the Black Hole, a former store on Arkansas Avenue that mostly sold surplus equipment from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“Keep pursuing, make some tweaks, but don’t stop,” Hardie said.
Resident Paula Schmitt said it’s a matter of protecting property values.

“I’ve had two realtors selling houses close to mine that a particular neighbor has brought my property values down $100,000. That makes me involved.”

Other residents, including Mark Voss, wanted the county to create more avenues of appeal for residents.

“I would just ask that, yes, code enforcement needs to be here to protect each other in this community, but there also needs to be some protections for the citizens in and of themselves on how to repeal these things for a number of reasons,” Voss said.

Los Alamos Council Vice President Susan O’Leary recommended several things the county could do to alleviate the situation, including going after blighted commercial property.

“Blighted commercial property affects everyone in our community and we have too much of it,” she said. “It takes up valuable land that could be redeveloped for housing or new businesses,” she said. “I believe that citizens want all commercial  property brought up to code and blighted property addressed through renovation or redevelopment.

She also asked that the county work more with residents to help them solve their violations when they can’t afford to do it themselves or are physically unable to.

She also suggested to council they form an advisory board that would oversee how the nuisance code is enforced.

“Like other advisory groups, this group could hold public hearings to get more feedback on possible changes and solicit

input over time and serve as an advisory group to county council,” O’Leary said.

She also understood residents’ frustration in the face of the newly enacted ordinance, and told of her feelings when she too was served a notice.

“This is one of the trade offs we have to make in order to have a community filled with property that is clean and are in a safe condition. This is a trade off that most communities accept,” O’Leary said.

Councilor James Chrobocinski, who invited Citizens in Action to speak at Tuesday’s meeting said council will move forward to resolve the issues addressed by the group that will be fair to residents and the county.

“I heard all my fellow councilors say we need to keep moving forward on this and make some changes,” Chrobocinski said, asking Council Chair David Izraelevitz to meet with him on what the next steps will be.

Milenski was pleased with the outcome so far, and that they’ll be watching.

“I like the direction we’re going, I like the attention we were given, and I commend them for listening,” Milenski said. “I was a little concerned that we’re not actually looking at taking a concrete step.”