Blight battle: Codes born from citizen concerns

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Clovis city leaders can’t remember a time when there wasn’t some kind of ordinance on the books controlling the condition of private property.

“You can go back to the ’40s and ’50s and find ordinances that require some kind of property (standards),” said City Manager Joe Thomas.

Curry County residents aren’t the only ones who don’t like being told how to keep their property, he said, referring to an abandoned automobile amendment about four years ago that sparked a heated debate over what is or isn’t a junk car.

“To you it’s a vintage car. … To the person that lives next door to you, it’s just a junk car that’s littering up the neighborhood,” he said.

Ultimately that debate was settled by requiring unregistered or inoperable vehicles to be screened from public view.

All ordinances are born of concern from somewhere within the community, Thomas said.

Someone approaches his or her community leaders with a concern or complaint. With enough merit or support, it works its way before the commission.

“Generally an ordinance comes about because someone either has an issue with something, or it’s brought to the commission’s attention that there’s an issue,” he said.

And yes, “Some have been contentious, for lack of a better word.”

City ordinances require property maintenance such as weed and trash control. Besides junk cars, the law requires other types of refuse to be screened from public view. Unoccupied property must be secured.

And there are a myriad other standards designed to keep the community’s aesthetics, health and safety a priority.

However, Curry County residents have resisted any ordinances seen as encroaching on their property rights. Upset residents say if they wanted to be zoned and live under ordinances, they would move inside city limits.

While the county commission is working on a third draft of an ordinance to address issues that affect, “public health and safety,” to date there are no zoning ordinances or ordinances establishing property maintenance standards in the county.

Thomas said it is because cities are different.

“If you live 100 miles from the closest house, there’s probably some merit to (the argument that the state of your property is your business).”

Where homes may only be separated by mere feet, Thomas said, one neighbor’s standards can have an immediate impact on another’s. Property values are more directly affected and, as a result, more structure and uniformity is needed to make it fair to all residents.

During the first 11 months of 2009, Building Safety Director Pete Wilt said Clovis officials took 17,424 actions related to code compliance, including contacting alleged violators.

Wilt said nearly 500 vehicles were towed, almost 4,000 letters were issued regarding weeds, trash and junk. Ultimately, four citations were issued.

Most often, particularly in cases of absentee or out-of-town property owners, rather than issuing citations, Wilt said the city sends its environmental response team to mow or clean up properties. In turn, the city bills the property owner or files a lien against the property for the cleanup cost.

“With a lot of them, it’s repeat offenders,” he said.

“We generally issue a citation if it’s a health or safety violation and they’re not taking care of it, (but) if they’re out of town, it’s usually pointless.”