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Group Discusses Dissatisfaction With Code Enforcement

on October 5, 2017 - 10:10am

Los Alamos County Councilor Antonio Maggiore contemplates complaints voiced Monday evening by 25 people in attendance at a meeting on County code enforcement issues. Photo by Maire O'Neill/ladailypost.com

 

BY MAIRE O'NEILL
Los Alamos Daily Post

A two-hour public meeting was held Monday evening in White Rock to address issues with enforcement of Chapter 18 of the Los Alamos Municipal Code entitled Environment. The meeting was hosted by residents Helen Milenski and Heather Ortega. Ortega intends to form a political action committee (PAC) called “Los Alamos Citizens in Action”.

The Environment chapter of the Municipal Code addresses the minimum conditions and responsibilities for maintenance of existing residential and non-residential structures as well as exterior property. In recent months, the County’s Community Development Department headed by Paul Andrus has come under fire for the substantial increase in the number of notices of code violations issued by the Department.

Although Milenski and Ortega had asked that County Council members and County staff not attend Monday’s meeting, Councilor Antonio Maggiore opted to attend as a private citizen. Councilor James Chrobocinski chimed in by text to let those in attendance know that the issue has been placed on the agenda for a Council work session at 6 p.m. Nov. 7 in Council Chambers at the Municipal Building.

Chrobocinski and Maggiore have engaged in discussion on social media on the issue and met with residents on the issue. Council Chair David Izraelevitz has published several columns in local newspapers and also met with some of the main players.

Although most of the 25 people present at the meeting had their own issues with code enforcement, there seemed to be four major issues they felt needed to be addressed:

  • inconsistencies in enforcement;
  • lack of definitions within the Code itself;
  • lack of education for the public as to what the code requires; and
  • the one that seemed to cause the most consternation, the ability of community members to file anonymous complaints on their neighbors.

Maggiore told the group that code enforcement is a tool the County has in its toolbox.

“Do we have to wield it as aggressively as we have been? Absolutely not!” he said.

Maggiore said the people who are running the CDD came from other communities where code enforcement is an actively wielded tool without the sort of backlash it receives in Los Alamos.

“So they were caught a little unaware with something coming out of the gate at a speed which normally would have been implemented in communities they previously worked in without backlash,” he said.

Many people at the meeting spoke of their personal experiences with Code Enforcement with regard to weeds, parked vehicles, adjacent structures and more, however the comments of a new resident of only two weeks seemed to strike a note with everyone present.

The newcomer said he moved to town two weeks ago having purchased a home where there is no homeowners’ association.

“Nobody told me about all these ordinances and I heard piecemeal about all this stuff going on. I’m a single dude, I live by myself. I have a cat and a dog. Now I find out if my 3.5-month-old puppy is barking for more than 10 minutes, that’s a fine,” he said. “I have a garage I found out the first day is not long enough for my truck. Now when I drive my Harley to work and leave the truck at home parked in my driveway, I’m eligible to be fined for it. I have an outdoor mini-fridge with a lock on it – apparently that’s a violation. You find out about all these ordinances and violations yet when I walk outside my house after trash day and I find smashed glass, I can’t walk my dog through it. I have to sweep it up because I’m going to get in trouble if I don’t.”

He said the County’s telling him what he can and can’t do on his property even when it’s not impacting his neighbor’s property, he said.

“I had trees that were overhanging my property. While I was cutting them back, I asked my neighbors if they wanted me to cut back the part hanging over their yard and they said, ‘No, that’s fine’. I found out that’s a violation having branches overhanging my neighbor’s property line and even though I’ve had that conversation with them, that’s a potential violation,” he said.

He said the County should be focused on policing the County and the major egregious violations.

“I have a front yard full of weeds because it was unattended for so long. I want to pull all those suckers out and drop some gravel and open up my yard for a parking pit,” he said. “I should be able to do that because it’s my property and I paid for it. There shouldn’t be a reason why after trash day I’m cleaning up after the County. Let me know if I’m off base here because I feel like my property is my private property and as long as what I’m doing on my property isn’t impacting the health and safety of my neighbors, it’s nobody’s damn business what I do in it.”

Many attendees complained about inconsistencies in the notices of violation and treatment of different residents with some claiming there are even differences between what each code enforcement officer will write a notice of violation for. There were complaints that nobody knows whether the orders to step up enforcement came from County Manager Harry Burgess or the County Councilors themselves. Maggiore said Councilors are directed not to interact with staff or to interact with them as little as possible as it “muddies the chain of command” and that they somewhat have their hands tied.

On the issue of the lack of education for the public about the code, it was noted that the CDD now has a Facebook page and seems to be trying to communicate better with the community. Maggiore said the CDD is very willing to meet with Council and have seemed responsive already to some of the issues raised.

Maggiore told the group the Council “screwed up” and made several mistakes is his view when the Environment section of the Code was approved.

“The hope is that if you are given a notice of violation, it should be very clear that the best step to do is call. If you call and make outreach with the enforcement staff, then the hope is that the people on the other end will be understanding,” Maggiore said. “I know this to be true generally speaking.”

The issue that frustrated and angered attendees the most seemed to be the ability to report “suspected Code violations” by submitting an anonymous form online. They felt this practice contributed to bad feelings and distrust among neighbors. There were reports of community members driving around town looking for code violations, sometimes in groups. The CDD website says that upon receipt of the complaint, staff will conduct a site visit. If a code violation is identified, a Notice of Violation will be issued.

A large chunk of discussion toward the end of the meeting involved generating a survey to be distributed to the public to determine if the community has concerns about the level of enforcement. The survey would be mostly made available through local newspapers.

The group is slated to meet with Maggiore 9-11 a.m. Friday in Building 2 at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos, 4000 University Dr.


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