Council Corner: The ‘Why’ Of Code Enforcement

Los Alamos

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a 3-part series on code enforcement

Recently, I have read many negative comments on social media and, more recently, letters to the editor regarding the County’s stepped-up Code Enforcement activities. I would like to step back from the fray for a minute to share with you some context relevant to this discussion. I ask you to keep reading with an open mind so that we can have civil dialogue about what the Council can do without completely “pulling the plug” on the program because of personal frustration, suspicion of County staff, or what I perceive is a lack of understanding about the process and intention behind these efforts.

Code enforcement is not a new issue for Los Alamos, but an uptick in activity by county staff, at Council’s direction, has given it more visible prominence in recent years. This included an update to the property maintenance standards passed in 2014 to cover some holes, such as the need for structures to have protective treatments (paint, stucco), prevention of rodent infestation, and clear premise identification for public safety reasons. In addition to an enhanced standard, there are two other reasons for the change in enforcement activity.

First, up until 2016, the County’s code enforcement was largely complaint-driven. Someone had an issue with a property and turned in a nuisance code complaint to the Community Development Department (CDD). Complaint intake involved a cumbersome and manual processing of an e-mail sent to a web mailbox or paper form filled out at CDD. As part of the county’s overall efficiency initiatives, there is now a much-improved software system used by CDD that offers a more convenient on-line complaint form to be filed and tracked systematically and anonymously.

Second, also happening in 2016, and as part of their top priority goals, the Council directed CDD to beef up efforts to address blight in our community, and become more proactive, not just reactive, in response to increasing citizen complaints about various visible property maintenance issues.  I remember public comment by citizens about decrepit homes in their neighborhood that were suppressing home values and inviting vandalism. We can all point to neighborhoods where this is a serious and ongoing problem that must be addressed. A community thrives when neighbors work together for the common good of all, and that includes the biggest part of a neighborhood’s core – the housing. Failure of a property owner to keep up with maintenance or neglect care of a home impacts property values and the quality of life for the neighborhood. We heard that message many times from property owners and real estate brokers last year, urging us to take a tougher stance and hold property owners accountable.

The biggest issue I heard regarding property maintenance was about “too tall” weeds and inoperable vehicles stored on private property – many times sitting in front yards – that were an eyesore, and sometimes even used as storage. Next in line on that list was tackling unsightly or unsafe accumulated junk and debris stored in yards. With a proactive goal in mind, in FY17 (July 2016), Council funded a second Code Enforcement Official position, and efforts got underway in earnest this year to ramp up enforcement. For example, in 2016 CDD processed a total of 136 complaints during the busy summer months, when weeds grow and property issues are generally far more visible as residents are out and about in nicer weather. During the same time frame this year, CDD has already processed more than 528 complaints.

Keeping those numbers in mind, I want to take a moment to point out that having proactive code enforcement is about more than just aesthetics and curb-side appeal. Unsafe homes or homes in disrepair can harbor rodents that can soon infiltrate the entire neighborhood. Vacant homes that are in disrepair invite vandalism, squatters and other illegal activity. There are instances where the resident living in the home may have a problem that plagues many communities across America, including our own – hoarding. It can be an unhealthy, unsanitary condition and once the problems begin, it can cascade into much bigger problems for not only the property owner, but those surrounding the property. I recently attended a presentation by our Fire Marshall about this problem, and the dangers hoarding places on occupants and fire fighters alike was very alarming.

So, if the volume of code enforcement being undertaken seems heftier than ever before, you’re right. However, that is not to say that we can’t do better at messaging “why” that has changed, and, more importantly, educating you about the “how” of CDD’s process. Staff and councilors are brainstorming on how to learn from our experience and make the process better. In Part 2 of this series, I will delve more into the “how” and expand upon what CDD is doing in response to public comments, but let me close by giving you a reassuring message that gets lost in those long Facebook threads: If you get a Notice of Violation, don’t panic. It’s not a citation. This is a request for conversation, not setting up a court date. Pick up the phone and call CDD (505.662.8120) and talk to code enforcement staff. They are there to listen and advise you as to what you can do – and they will work with you on how and on what timescale to address whatever issue has arisen. The goal is not to send you to court or force you to pay fines. This is not about revenue generation or government overreach. This is about voluntary compliance and keeping our neighborhoods clean, safe and presentable. Together, with a little toning down of the rhetoric, and a little more conversation and education, we can get this done.

David Izraelevitz is Chair of the Los Alamos County Council. However, the opinions expressed in this column are his own.