The Ocean Shores City Council on Friday began steps to draft a tougher ordinance to deal with nuisance properties and to look at other ways to battle crime and drug activity associated with problem houses known to police and neighbors.
The response during a two-hour special council study session was prompted by a number of citizens who in the past month have joined together to bring their concerns before the city and to establish a social media connection where residents have shared their issues and ideas.
“We need the nuisances laws revamped to really protect the city and the citizens, but we also have to have some real teeth that will take action,” said Rick Selby, who said he has notified the city about multiple problems with a neighbor’s house over a three-year period.
Some of the discussion was over how much money the city had to fully abate a nuisance property or properties, and there were several notes of caution about how far the city could go.
Currently, the city has about $25,000 budgeted for abatement, with one property about to the point where abatement proceedings could be put into place. To “come in and remove everything” would cost about the entire fund, Mayor Crystal Dingler noted.
Councilman Bob Peterson suggested forming a group of volunteers who might be able to help clean up some of the problem properties to lessen the cost. “It would be much cheaper and much more efficient for the city if we could do it that way,” he said. “To me, it’s a social issue, not a policing issue.”
“I think we do have to be very thoughtful, before we come to all these solutions, including ordinance changes,” Councilwoman Holly Plackett cautioned. “We have to understand that we live in a democracy and people have the right to the pursuit of happiness. I just don’t want to get into a situation where we have neighborhoods that are so controlling or restrictive. This is a recreational community. … One person’s messy yard, is another person’s pursuit of happiness.”
All five of the seven council members at the study session at the Canterbury Inn and Dingler agreed that the city should draft added legislative measures to deal with problem residences as well as other public safety issues. An ordinance drafted and enacted by the city of Hoquiam was used as a blueprint for what a similar Ocean Shores ordinance would look like.
“I think it is important that we do define what it is we are going after,” Dingler said.
City Council candidate Susan Conniry also expressed concern about going too far: “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. It’s when it starts affecting the neighborhood” that it becomes a problem.
Resident Katherine Sprague also urged caution when taking away someone’s property, and suggested the decision should take at least a three member group including the Police Chief, a civilian member, and a city elected official.
Selby said he wasn’t complaining about his neighbor to “make his yard look like ours. It was no garbage service, plain and simple. Then the contamination of rats and the infestation, now we have major structural issues to deal with.”
He alleged the neighbor has gone from not having garbage, to having no water or electricity, choosing to burn the garbage in a wood stove.
“When you think about these ordinances, think about our civil rights also. We’re taking a real beating on our property values,” Selby said.
Resident Randy Peck, who has lobbied the city to adopt a new chronic nuisance property ordinance, also suggested requiring mandatory garbage service for Ocean Shores.
The key to enacting chronic nuisance ordinance is being able to cite and fine “the person in control” of the property, who might not always be the property owner, Peck maintained. That could apply to tenants or even squatters, who would be subject to a fine of $500 a day, or as much as $25,000 total for an owner.
Real estate broker Thorn Ward said he wrote the city a letter describing a number of nuisance properties — 11 within a mile of the Police and Fire Stations.
“It was all sorts of things, from falling down fences to obvious trash all over the place,” Ward said, but he never got a response from the city.
“I think the city worries too much about what an abatement costs. What does a citation cost? It can’t be that much,” Ward added. “Cite these people at least.”
Dingler assured Ward the city takes the issue seriously: “If we work together, we’re going to have some solutions.”
Police Chief Neccie Logan outlined some of the steps currently taken: “Once the code enforcement officer is notified of a complaint that comes in, or he observes a nuisance property, he will contact the person responsible who is at that property. What he does is actually make contact with them and give them a verbal warning with a chance to get it cleaned up.”
“We don’t want to just hammer everyone with fines,” Logan noted.
Photos of the properties are taken by the code enforcement officer to show before and after. “If the person is showing some kind of improvement, that they are trying to clean it up, he continues to give them a little more time,” Logan said.
If nothing is done, a citation then can be issued and the case goes to Municipal Court, where the judge also can give more time to clean up the property.
In trying to draft a tougher ordinance, Logan explained, Hoquiam separates nuisance and chronic properties. Nuisance issues are mostly with upkeep of the properties, while nuisance properties are those where there are multiple Police responses.
“We think it’s important to have them separated the way that Hoqium does,” Logan said.
Working with the City Attorney, she added, the intent is to present a rewritten new ordinance that would allow the city to address the owner and not just those on the property.
But Logan also cautioned that some of the property owners aren’t able to pay a fine even if the city were to impose stricter penalties.
“We want to help them as much as possible. We don’t want to dig them any deeper than the hole that they are in,” she said.