By HELEN MILENSKI
I got involved with the whole ‘yard ordinance’ issue because I narrowly missed getting a Notice of Violation (NOV) right after my husband had a heart attack and was in the hospital for a week this summer.
While we were still dealing with the craziness of my husband’s previous week in the hospital, he called me to tell me our dog jumped the fence in the morning before he had to leave for his first day back to work. I came home for lunch to try to find my dog. When I pulled up to my home I noticed a county vehicle across the road with a gentleman looking at my house with excessive interest. When I made eye contact with him he drove off in a hurry. I had heard about the increased yard enforcement zeal so I knew what was up. I groaned as I went to the shed to get the weed whacker. It was going to be an extra-long lunch break. To make matters worse as soon as I started to weed whack it started to rain.
As I was about halfway done my dog came home and at about three-quarters of the way done the gentleman from the county pulled up again across the street. He and I made eye contact and he had a very sour scowl on his face. He wadded up a piece of paper and once again drove off in a hurry.
Whew! …But wait? Why should I have such a panicked reaction over a little over growth in my yard when I was dealing with arguably one of the worst weeks of my life? Because of my experience, I believed my fellow Los Alamosians when so many of them told me how their encounters with the ordinance officials were less than stellar. I want to help find the answers to this issue and after looking into this more and more I think it all has to do with respect.
I believe that the only way to really understand an issue is to examine all sides. A friend suggested that I go to the county Community Development office and hear the other side of the Yard Ordinance issue.
Therefore, last Friday I went to the Los Alamos County Municipal Building and spoke with Mr. Michael Arellano, Building Safety Manager and Chief Building Official for Los Alamos County Community Development. He was incredibly accommodating since I didn’t have an appointment. We spoke for over an hour and made a plan to go for a drive around some neighborhoods so he could illustrate the counties concerns and process for handling ordinance issues.
During our conversation he told me that Community Development had already been making changes similar to the ones I proposed to David Izraelevitz a few weeks ago. The wording on the “Notice of Violation” was changed to a less aggressive tone. “Violation” is being removed from the top and “Non-Compliance” is being used as wording in the notice instead.
The minimum time frame for making any action has been changed from three days to ten days and starting this week an informative insert will accompany the notice to explain what it is, how to handle it, and contact information for the official. The county is working on a list of businesses and charities that can help directly or offer services to address the issues in the notice. When I went on the ride along with Mr. Arellano he showed me some serious safety issues and homes that were obviously falling into disrepair. I have to admit though, I probably wouldn’t have seen most of these issues if I was just driving past or possibly even if I lived close by.
Generally what I would have seen was simply older houses with newer families mixed with seniors. In essence, what I saw were my neighbors, even if it wasn’t directly my neighborhood. This is where perspective comes into this argument.
I am not against all of the county ordinance. I believe that a county ordinance needs to be well structured to suit the community need, but even after my meeting I still believe that the ordinance has to lean farther in favor of property rights for the individual citizen much more than we are currently practicing.
At my request, we drove through my neighborhood in the Denver Steel area and then he drove around the area south of Conoco Hill and out to Tsikamu Village. He showed me what the inspectors would most likely write an NOV about, He showed me areas where even the county would be given a NOV. He showed me very good examples of bad violations that anyone could see. He showed me a lot of things that might not be a NOV, but would be something an official would keep an eye on over time and see if it deteriorated more without being addressed. After listening and discussing this with Mr. Arellano, I was still concerned with the aspect of the home and people more than the quality of the yard and the surface of the house, but I wanted to see more to give due diligence to what I had learned.
I decided to take a drive around town with my new found knowledge. I drove through the Quamazon area, and can you guess what I found? I found cracked and chipped stucco, I found weeds that were blocking sidewalks, and trailers being stored improperly. Granted there were only a few occurrences of these ordinance issues most likely because this is also an area that has a heavily enforced HOA.
Nevertheless, I found a cookie cutter approach to beauty that is appealing to a lot of people.
I drove back through Tsikamu Village and other areas on North Mesa and I saw houses of families who took pride in their homes just the same as the people in Quamazon. I saw individual expression and creativity in rock gardens and flower beds. I saw grape vines and trellises and homes with little fountains. I saw a lot of people enjoying and using their private property in their individual ways and this also appeals to a lot of people.
Yet, I also saw peeling paint, wooden surfaces that have surface treatments worn thin, and I saw weeds. In some cases there are issues of immediate and direct safety for the homeowner and neighborhood, but most of the infractions I can find are the same as the ones that are being reported to me over and over again. The majority of these transgressions of county ordinance are merely aesthetic and not creating a dire danger unless you push to find it in the fine print of loose interpretation.
After seeing both sides of this issue I believe that the best way to encourage people to make improvements to their homes, aesthetic or safety, rented or owned, is found in respect for individual rights rather than punitive correction. We live in a mountain town with wildlife that has to be respected, we also need to have respect for the fact that we live in a close community with each other.
Without respect for our rights we will stamp out the joy of living here. If it is your home that has peeling paint then you are the first and most direct person impacted by letting that go. Even though peeling paint isn’t good for the wood and it may allow mold and can cause greater problems in time, a strong armed ordinance and anonymous reporting isn’t good for the people. It isn’t good for respecting property rights, and ultimately it isn’t good for the relationships among neighbors. When neighborhoods are encouraged to become contentious and hostile, that will drive down the enjoyment of living there more than property values can overcome.
When I drive around this town I tend to see places as connections with old memories. All over town I remember friends, family and events that hold meaning to me from living here. Perhaps that is why I tend to be blind to the missing boards on fences, the weeds, or the peeling paint. What I do see, is houses that are filled with people and what is displayed on the exterior of each home is only the surface to the heartbeat of a home. That is what makes this place the Los Alamos I love, not the perfection of it, but the respect and caring that go so much deeper than the surface.