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Neighbors gone bad: Send help
By ERICA HALL
Federal Way code compliance officers Martin Nordby and Betty Cruz set a new record last year for responding to the highest number of complaints in city history 463 along with more than a thousand questions and concerns handled over the phone.
Between the two of them, Cruz and Nordby respond to a dozen calls a day from city residents who complain of junked cars or garbage in a neighbor's yard, landlords who let properties fall into disrepair, improper clearing of land, unapproved construction, illegal home businesses and violations of the city's sign code.
Many of the questions and complaints are handled over by phone or letter. Some are dealt with before code compliance officers drive by for an inspection. A few require a tremendous amount of time working through voluntary correction orders, notices of violation and the drafting of reports to present to city attorneys.
In spite of the hundreds of cases they encounter a month, Cruz and Nordby don't prowl the neighborhoods looking for violations. Their work is complaint-driven. For instance, if a homeowner's hobby of rehabilitating muscle cars doesn't bother the neighbors, Nordby and Cruz probably won't ever hear about it.
"I'm out in the field a lot. I see a lot of stuff that doesn't get reported," Nordby said.
But if someone's penchant for using the back yard as a garbage dump begins to distress the people living next door and they call to complain, Nordby or Cruz say they will jump into action.
The first step is to send a letter notifying the offender of the complaint and setting a date for an on-site inspection. Nordby said two-thirds of the violations are resolved before he even gets there.
"They take care of it after they get the letter or they call," he said. "It's that 15 percent 30 or 40 (cases) every year that take forever to resolve. They're ongoing, large or more complicated to resolve."
Code violation complaints have been on the rise in Federal Way over the past decade. There were 260 complaints in 1990, 250 in 1995 and 385 in 2000. In 2003, Nordby and Cruz responded to 400 complaints. And last year, that number was up to 463.
Nordby doesn't count calls the officers receive about sign code violations. Cruz was hired to focus solely on sign code violations after the city passed a law prohibiting tall pole signs and billboards within city limits. Nordby said most of the businesses are now compliant.
The bulk of code violations are composed of junk-car complaints 65 in 2003, 42 in 2004 followed by property maintenance issues and other issues in residential areas that get neighbors concerned about appearance, public safety or property values.
There were 53 junk and garbage complaints in 2003 and 45 last year. There were 64 complaints related to building code violations and 58 complaints related to housing code violations in 2003, down to 56 and 47 respectively last year.
Nordby said there was an increase last year in construction without the proper permits people building garages, large storage sheds or upper-floor decks, for example. And sign code complaints jumped from four in 2003 to 67 last year as a result of better accounting for complaints and a change in emphasis.
In addition to the increases in complaints, last year saw the conclusion of several large, complex cases around the city, Nordby said.
Al Agledal, a former landlord in the Westway neighborhood on 21st Avenue Southwest, sold two dilapidated sixplex units after several years of fines, correction orders and condemnation of several of the rental units.
Nordby said the city also has reached an agreement with Frank Clark, whose family has owned property at South 373rd Street and Pacific Highway South since the 1950s. About two years ago, Clark began operating a business using some of the old buildings on the property. Code compliance officers told him to stop, and he appealed. The issue finally went to a hearing examiner, who last month denied Clark's appeal. He appealed the decision in King County Superior Court, but he also complied with the city code and cleaned up the entire property, according to Nordby.
Another complaint at Steel Lake has been four years in the works. In 2000, neighbors reported property owner Nicholas Harwood placed fill dirt on his lakefront property. When Nordby went out to inspect, he didn't see a significant amount of fill, and Harwood told him he'd only brought in a little bit of dirt to fill in some uneven parts of his property. Nordby closed the case.
In 2003, the neighbors filed a lawsuit against Harwood in Superior Court. During his sworn testimony, Harwood admitted bringing in three truck loads of fill dirt and grading from the lakefront about 50 feet into his property.
Last August, Nordby was approached by the neighbors again. After seeing their aerial photos of the change to the shoreline, Nordby said, he issued Harwood a notice of violation and an order to correct. Harwood appealed, saying the city's facts were flawed. But at a hearing last month, the city and Harwood reached an agreement.
Nordby estimated the whole process in a complaint, including the site visit, takes about an hour, "assuming there's no violation, no stopping and no talking to anyone." Those account for about 40 percent of the violation calls he receives. The remainder take much longer.
"I spent three hours (one day) just on a hearing from someone who appealed the notice of violation. I spend five or six hours working with attorneys working on the report. It'll be several more hours to work out settlements with attorneys," he said.
Nordby said he spent 10 to 15 hours writing a staff report for an odor complaint from people living near the Taqueria El Michoacano restaurant. The couple complained of smoky, grilled-meat smells that came from the establishment, which they said aggravated their existing medical conditions.
Federal Way doesn't have regulations for cooking or restaurant smells. Butu after doing some research, Nordby found the restaurant in violation. A hearing examiner disagreed and ruled in favor of the restaurant, which he said had done nothing wrong and hadn't violated city code.
"It was really kind of cutting-edge," Nordby said. "I never before had to deal with that issue, and there are sympathetic parties on both sides."
4,000 land-use calls a year
In addition to taking complaints from residents, compliance officers also respond to a number of calls more than 4,000 a year, Nordby said from small business owners and property owners wondering what they're allowed and not allowed to do in the city.
Nordby said Federal Way sits at the low end of code compliance staffing. He and Cruz are the only two such officers in the city, which has a population of more than 86,000.
Bellevue, with a population of 120,000 people, has 6.5 code compliance officers who responded to 2,000 calls for service last year, according to Federal Way officials. Everett, with 91,000 people, has three officers who responded to about 900 calls last year.
Olympia, population 43,000, has 2.75 officers who responded to 415 calls and assisted with abandoned vehicles in the public right-of-way. Renton, with 54,600 people, has two full-time code compliance officers and a part-timer who responded to 670 calls, though their workload is expected to go up to 900 this year following a change in emphasis.
Spokane, population 200,000, has five code compliance officers, a supervisor and a planner. They responded to 3,300 calls for service.
While many cases are a struggle, Nordby said sometimes the neighbors in a particular area come through and help. Some time ago, an elderly lady died and her son moved in to take care of her affects and settle her affairs. He held daily garage sales to get rid of her old things, but he soon started slipping behind. He then let a friend move into a trailer parked on the property.
The neighbors worked with police, who arrested the woman living in the trailer on an outstanding warrant. The neighbors then went to the son and chipped in their own money to have all the garbage that had collected hauled away. They mowed the property and the trailer was removed in the middle of the night.
"I was really impressed," Nordby said. "They were neighbors who talked to each other. Sometimes neighbors can get a lot more done than I can."
Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, firstname.lastname@example.org