Tribune-Courier News Editor
Without a county-wide zoning ordinance, officials have few options to deal with property nuisances and dilapidated homes.
County Attorney Jeff Edwards said the county’s existing ordinance on nuisances comes from a state statute.
“We have an administrative process where a property owner will be notified by the sheriff’s department about a problem,” Edwards said.
“If they do not agree about the problem, or do nothing for 14 days, they will come before a committee that will make a decision about the property. If the committee wants, they can direct the county to abate the problem, and put a lien on the property for the cost of the clean-up. That means the property must be foreclosed upon or sold to get the money back.”
Edwards said the problem with the current model is the county must spend the money in a tight budget and cost recovery is not assured immediately. For this reason, the county is unable to tackle large projects like razing a dilapidated home or dismantling a junked trailer.
The county has handled smaller problems like towing abandoned vehicles or mowing untended grass.
“In this economy, we are seeing more homes in foreclosure by banks, and have the same problem,” Edwards said. “We see responses to foreclosures in my office daily.”
In the alternative, Edwards said the county may issue citations as criminal complaints for nuisance properties. A property owner would then be entitled to due process, including, quite possibly, a trial.
With district court encumbered with other criminal complaints, Edwards added there is little time or resources for prosecution of nuisance property owners.
“Then we face the definition of the term nuisance,” Edward’s said. “They always say one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. We really have to consider every property on a case-by-case basis.”
Edwards said zoning would allow the county to say what could or could not be put on a piece of land, or how that land is used. He added zoning has been unpopular in rural and agricultural areas as owners feel like they purchased their land and pay tax on it, and believe they are entitled to use it as they see fit.
In subdivisions, Edwards said a neighborhood association may place more rules on property usage through deed restrictions and covenants.
“A homeowner’s association may enforce covenants an owner agreed to when they purchased the property by pursuing civil actions against the offender,” Edwards said.
As a final piece of action, Edwards said the Marshall County Health Department could investigate properties if they presented any type of health hazard.
Juli Conner, director of environmental health at the Marshall County Health Department, said for the health department to intervene, a property had to create a source of filth, be identified as a cause of disease or create an injury hazard to the public.
“If this is the case, then we can condemn it if it is a private residence,” Conner said. “If it’s abandoned property, it can be boarded up. If it is within a city, it may be subject to zoning and local ordinances.”
For homes with swimming pools that are not maintained, Conner said the health department may require a gate to prevent the unwary from a drowning hazard. In warmer months, the health department could require the pool be covered to minimize mosquito breeding.
“If we encounter a public health nuisance, and the issue is not resolved in a reasonable length of time, we could turn an owner to the county attorney for prosecution,” Conner said. “We do try to work with property owners to help them resolve the problem themselves.
Conner said the health department receives regular complaints. She added the health department is frequently unable to respond, because what neighbors consider to be a hazard may often be unsightly, but does not present a health to public health.
Tony Henson, property value administrator, said his office does not keep track of the number of vacant or dilapidated homes.
“We may talk to a homeowner if they are available, or note a property looks to be abandoned when we are doing assessments,” Henson said. “Most of the time, if a building is abandoned, or dilapidated, it’s on the property owner to tell us so we can make an adjustment in the assessment.”
Judge-Executive Mike Miller said he thought the Fiscal Court should reconsider zoning across the county to deal with distressed properties and to manage large poultry and swine producers.
“The reality is you could build a half-million dollar home and next door, they could build a poultry house,” Miller said. “Without having a subdivision with regulations, there isn’t a thing you could do about it. It’s been brought up before, and people told me they don’t want the county telling them what to do with their land.”
With several property owners addressing county commissioners about nuisances on neighboring properties at recent meetings, Miller said he intends to ask the court to reconsider zoning and possibly conduct public hearings on the issue.