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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Council tables nuisance rule

At the Aug 14 Colonial Beach Town Council Meeting, the public hearing to amend the the town’s nuisance ordinance was anything but structured or productive so the council voted to table the ordinance.

Residents questioned the enforcement of the ordinance regarding trash, weeds and grass, and council members questioned staff why the Planning Commission Code Compliance Officer is only acting on citizens’ complaints rather than seeking out violations.

The ordinance defines what are unlawful conditions of trash, garbage, refuse, litter, junk and other substances. These substances, either alone or in combination, which pose a threat of infection, explosion, poisoning or health hazard are prohibited by law in Colonial Beach.

When a violation occurs a notice will be sent to the landowner, who will have 14 days to correct the situation. If the landowner does not comply, the town either may clean up the hazardous conditions or hire a contractor to remove the debris. The property owner then may be billed for the work. If not paid, the fee can be attached to the property in the form of a lien against the property.

The ordinance also addresses overgrowth of weeds, grass, shrubbery, trees and other vegetation in roughly the same manner, restricting the growth of these items to less than 12 inches.

However, it recently was brought to the council’s attention by town attorney Andrea Erard that the ordinance concerning restrictions on grass and weed height can only be enforced on vacant properties, whether there is a house on the property or not. The grass restriction currently cannot be enforced on properties where citizens routinely inhabit the home or property.

During the public hearing, council broke with protocol, deciding to answer questions concerning the ordinance during the public comment.

First to ask questions was owner of Trinity Building Co.,  Steve Cirbee. “I assume there is a provision in there for enforcement and what is it?”

Erard said there is a provision for sending notices and the timeline for these notices has changed but Cirbee cut in saying, “Back up. Before you get to that, Identifying the issues, identifying the violators, how is that going to be done? Is that only when somebody calls and complains about their neighbor?”

Erard said the ordinance does not address that.

Cirbee responded, “Again another ordinance that has no enforcement in it whatsoever.”

During discussions, council determined past councils have instructed the code compliance officer to only act on citizens’ complaints rather than seeking out violators. The ordinance only applies to vacant properties, whether developed or undeveloped, and there is no fine or civil penalty beyond forcing property owners to pay the town for cleanup.
Resident Marsha Feldman proposed imposing a civil penalty for non-compliance.

Councilman Pete Bone said the town charges a hefty fee to cut grass and clean up, so he believed this charge would deter landowners from leaving the work to the town.

Bone said he wanted to know who made the rule the zoning department would only enforce citizens’ complaints.

“Usually a policy decision is set by the council whether there is uniform, universal enforcement or whether complaints are handled on a case-by-case basis,” Erard said.

Councilman James Chiarello said some counties have the ability to enforce the ordinance on occupied properties through special permission of the state legislature.

“There’s something with the fact that you make a statement to the public, you send them a letter,” Chiarello said. “Whether you have teeth or not doesn’t matter. I think the matter is that you address the situation a certain way and then the time comes when you can bring it before the assembly and get permission to do so. I don’t believe there is any punishment if we do that, legally.”

Councilman Gary Seeber motioned to defer the ordinance to the September meeting and all members voted in favor.

Bone said he believes the nuisance ordinance has been on the table since 2011 and joked, “I’m glad council is putting this one on the fast track.”

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