Council to consider property standards

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By Arin McKenna

Anne Laurent’s understanding of what residents are looking for in code enforcement for property maintenance has evolved during the 12 months she has been director of the Community and Economic Development Department. 

“When people asked for more proactive code enforcement they really wanted property maintenance standards. And that’s two different things,” Laurent said. “And we don’t currently have property maintenance standards beyond weeds, rubbish, structural failure and parking inoperable vehicles.”

A large number of complaints coming to CEDD have to do with exterior maintenance: loose siding or roofing materials, holes in exterior walls, broken or missing windows, fences in disrepair and houses perpetually under construction.

The current code addresses none of those issues. So CEDD staff is proposing the county adopt sections 301 and 304 of the 2009 International Property Maintenance Code (IMPC) regarding exterior maintenance standards.

Section 301 governs minimum conditions and the responsibilities of homeowners for maintenance of structures, equipment and exterior property. 

Section 304 states the exterior of a structure shall be maintained in good repair, structurally sound and sanitary so not to pose a threat to the public health safety or welfare.

“Part of the simplification is we’re not trying to draft unique language where we’re debating one word or the other. We’re trying to use tried and true language,” Laurent said. 

“And we’re not taking on the whole book. We’re just taking on one section of it. We’re trying to keep this focused on what we think will address the majority of what people want us to do something about.”

Other common complaints concern repeat offenders, perpetual construction projects or absent property owners. 

Staff is proposing that repeat offenders face stiffer fines and that the county refuse to extend building permits if little or no progress is being made. 

Staff is also urging the adoption of a Vacant Property Ordinance, requiring property owners to register their property as vacant with the county and provide detailed contact information. The county would advise the property owner of their continued responsibility to maintain and secure the property and keep a current list of vacant properties so they can be monitored as needed by Code Enforcement, the Police Department, Fire Department or Department of Public Utilities.

Council will also be asked to review the violation notice process. 

Courtesy notices are delivered when there is a complaint or identified code violation. The current code calls for a minimum of two days for the property owner to rectify the situation, but CEDD typically allows one week to 30 days. An extension is provided with good reason when progress is being made. Two and three courtesy notices are typically delivered before a citation is issued.

Correcting a violation by issuing a citation is a lengthy process that can take a year to work its way through the court system. 

Of the 223 cases in 2012, 87 percent were corrected without citation. Three cases were cited and sent to the Municipal Court. Several cases are unresolved due to vacant or abandoned properties and generate multiple complaints.

“Part of the concern about enforcing property maintenance is we have to have the same policy for everybody. And that’s great when you’re the person trying to sell your house and there’s a property in disrepair and you want them to fix it up,” Laurent said. “But if that person doesn’t have the means to do it, then it becomes a hardship story and how can you impose more hardship on someone like that?”

CEDD is looking for ways to partner with groups such as churches, social service groups and neighborhood associations to help those physically or financially unable to come into compliance. 

Laurent and Housing Manager Paul Andrus will also present council with some housing initiatives Tuesday, which Laurent believes go hand-in-hand with code enforcement. 

“One reason we need different types of housing is so if somebody’s in a home that they can’t maintain any more, then there’s another housing choice in the community for them to transition to,” Laurent said. 

Staff will also ask council to consider assistance programs for housing rehabilitation. 

Laurent admits previous efforts at reforming the code have failed, and that taking action may not be easy. 

”Property maintenance can be a controversial topic. People are going to have strong opinions either way,” Laurent said. “Our customers in the county are asking us to get involved in these things, but before we go down some roads, we want to get a sense of what council is supportive of.”

Tuesday’s council meeting is a work session, so no decisions will be made. Staff is hoping to receive guidance as to whether to draft an ordinance with more comprehensive standards or not. The meeting is at 7 p.m. at White Rock Fire Station No. 3.

Council adopts
airport plan

Council’s first Friday afternoon meeting was dedicated to reviewing a new Airport Master Plan. The proposal was adopted by a 6-0 vote, with Councilor Rick Reiss away on travel.

The Federal Aviation Administration recommends that master plans be updated every seven to 10 years.  The Los Alamos County Airport plan has not been updated since 1994. 

Read more about the airport plan in Tuesday’s Los Alamos Monitor.