News

Code enforcement lacks muscle

Enforcement of city codes may get a bit stricter this fall when officials decide how to address residents who refuse to comply with Federal Way’s rules.

The Community Development Department, city attorneys and City Council will brainstorm ways to strengthen enforcement of the city’s municipal codes beginning in September. The current code system trusts residents will cooperate with the city in its efforts to keep Federal Way clean and maintained, city staff attorney Monica Buck said.

Besides taking property owners to court, sending their fines to collections agencies or putting a lien on their property, the system does not include recourse action against residents who fail to abide by the codes or pay the citations issued to them for their violations.

The city receives more than 600 code compliance cases per year, community development director Kathy McClung said. Codes are in place for prohibiting junk cars in a resident’s yard, improper disposal of garbage and the collection of materials that may lead to rodent infestations, McClung said.

When the city first becomes aware of a resident who is disregarding the city’s rules, code compliance officers will be sent to address the issue, she said. They will inform the resident of the violation and request that it be taken care of, McClung said.

If the resident agrees to fix the problem, the city gives the benefit of the doubt and leaves the residence without issuing a citation, she said.

“The majority of people are compliant, willing to work with the city and want to correct violations,” Buck said.

Only a small percentage of residents do not follow through on their promises, McClung said.

If a resident does not address the violation, a citation will be issued, McClung said. A fine of $100 per day will accrue under the property owner’s name until he or she calls the city and arranges to have a code compliance officer verify that violations are no longer present, she said.

For some residents, even this tactic does not work. The $100-per-day fine can continue to build upon itself indefinitely, McClung said.

The city is still struggling to decide what it should do if a property owner refuses to cooperate, McClung said.

“We haven’t had procedures in place to take (violations) to the next level,” McClung said.

Language directing city officials as to how fines can be collected from uncooperative property owners does not exist in the city’s municipal code system. The first option for addressing residents’ failure to clean up and pay a fine is to continue to ask them to correct the problem and continue to issue more fines, McClung said.

If worse comes to worse, the city can attempt to collect fines by getting a collection agency involved or putting a lien on a person’s property, Buck said. It can also take the resident to Superior Court. However, these actions are not preferred, and the city has yet drag someone to court for failure to pay their city code violations, Buck said.

This will change soon.

A shining example

Southwest 325th Street is in a clean neighborhood that appears welcoming — with freshly painted houses, patio furniture and landscaped yards complete with brightly colored red, pink and purple flower beds and stepping stones.

One house is not like the rest. The yard is overgrown, with brush and trees overhanging the driveway and consuming a side yard. A recreational vehicle, garbage piled alongside it, sits seemingly untouched in the driveway. A compact car, which appears to be full of bags of debris, is also parked in the driveway. Flies buzz and a cat meows for attention.

A friendly young woman at this residence answered the door politely and requested a business card. Her mother was not feeling well and unable to speak about her home, she said.

The city has known about this property for more than 14 years. Neighbors have complained to City Council members about its condition. Neighbor John Barron said its owners are friendly, but unable to care for their land.

He’s seen rats scurrying around the premises, he said.

“There’s a limit to everything and he’s overstepped his boundaries,” Barron said of the neighbor.

At an Aug. 7 City Council meeting, McClung showed council members photographs of the property and a timeline of municipal code violations, including a messy yard, mossy roof, rats and inoperable vehicles, beginning in 1993 and continuing through 2007.

McClung estimates the property owner has racked up fines to the amount of $40,000 to $60,000 for continually refusing to clean the land.

The city is planning to take the resident to Superior Court for rodent harborage, Buck said. The judge could issue a warrant of abatement, which would allow the city to enter the property and rid it of rats and everything causing their presence, Buck said.

The property owner would be required to pay for the operation, she said. In addition, enacting a lien on the property or collecting fines through the use of a collection agency will likely be easier to do with a judge’s order, Buck said.

Federal Way resident David Kaplan said at the council meeting that he was appalled the problem continued for so long without being addressed.

“This has reached the point of absurdity,” Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell said.

The city’s problems with enforcing its municipal codes are not limited to cases such as the one on Southwest 325th Street, McClung said. If this had been a case of somebody continually building without permits, rather than refusing to remove junk cars and garbage from his yard, a problem could still exist, she said.

“It is not the type of code violation,” McClung said. “It’s just the bigger issue (of how to enforce city codes).”

Patching the system

In past years, the city has not had the knowledge or experience to patch its system. Buck joined the city staff June 4 and has a background in municipal code enforcement in Burien and Tukwila.

“We will be taking a more comprehensive look at some additional tools we may be able to use,” McClung said.

These tools could include introducing new ordinances. The city is considering using the 2005 International City Maintenance Code, which would regulate how Federal Way citizens could use their property, Buck said.

A dangerous buildings ordinance is also being considered, she said. Violations of ordinances are easier to address than violations of city codes, and the process is quicker than taking a person to court, Buck said.

The city needs to come up with strict procedures to follow when people violate a code, McClung said. It must figure out how to get permission to enter onto a person’s property and remove items such as cars and vegetation if the property owner refuses to do so, she said.

The city needs to set a fixed point at which it will no longer tolerate uncooperative residents and will instead proceed in alternative means to remedy the situation, McClung said.

Revising the city code system may be a quick process if procedures need to be changed slightly, McClung said. It may take longer if zoning codes need to be altered — and those require public forums, she said.

Some suggestions are expected to be presented to the City Council in September, Buck said.

At that time the council will be forced to clearly define what it will not tolerate. At the Aug. 7 meeting, council member Dean McColgan voiced concerns about the degree to which the city should tell its residents what to do with their land. McClung wondered aloud if the city needed to go to such extremes as to dictate how long a person’s grass could grow or if it should simply address houses, such as the one on Southwest 325th Street, that are a reoccurring problem.

All changes to the city’s codes and any new ordinances will appear before the city council and residents will have an opportunity to voice their thoughts regarding the procedures, Buck said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

Notes:

Some city codes may need to be updated or altered. In parts of the city, residents have complained about the length of a neighbor’s grass and amount of vegetation.

In 2004, the city rejected portions of its property maintenance code that would have put limits to vegetation on private property.

City officials may take a closer look at the municipal codes in regards to property maintenance this September. A limitation on vegetation could be enforced in the future.

For more information about the city’s current codes, visit www.cityoffederalway.com or talk to a code compliance officer at (253) 835-2601.

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