Public Nuisance Ordinance
Questions and Answers
Originally developed in January 2000
1. Why do we need a public nuisance ordinance?
Over the past few years, many neighbors have contacted the City because of a nuisance property in their neighborhood. These houses are usually described as chronic problems, creating an eyesore or, in some cases, disturbing the peace of others who live nearby. The public nuisance ordinance adds a tool to the City's resources for dealing with these problems. Though the City has existing laws to deal with many of the individual issues which neighbors complain about, they did not offer an effective way of handling chronic problems.
In addition to creating this ordinance, the City has stepped up enforcement of existing laws about trash, inoperable motor vehicles, couches on lawns and other health and safety violations. City Council has also asked the Police Department to look at ways to increase enforcement of noise, party and disturbance calls. When these methods fail to change the behavior at a problem property, the nuisance ordinance becomes another tool for solving the problem.
2. How does the public nuisance ordinance work?
There are several steps involved in enforcing the public nuisance ordinance. They include the following actions:
First, the City would need to become aware that a property might be becoming a public nuisance. This could happen in one of several ways, including complaints from neighbors or a neighborhood group, a large number of violations which look like a pattern to a staff member, or the police department noticing a chronic problem and calling it to the attention of the code enforcement staff. The Code Compliance Case Manager would then collect data about a potential nuisance property and look at the "big picture" to determine how serious and chronic the problem is in comparison to similar properties in the City. If the property has multiple violations, the City Attorney would also help to decide whether a public nuisance action could be proven in Court and should be filed.
Notice would be sent to the property owner (and tenants in the case of a rental) when the city begins the process of monitoring a property as a possible public nuisance. This would be the first official notice of the possibility of a public nuisance violation. After receiving the first notice, 2 additional violations within 12 months (3 total) or 4 additional violations within 24 months (5 total) could result in the filing of a public nuisance action. As soon as the first notice was sent to the property owner, the City would encourage the owner to work with the City, any tenants and possibly neighbors to develop a plan to avoid future problems.
3. I've heard that one neighbor could get my property in trouble over a few frivolous complaints. Is this true?
No, this is not true. This ordinance has many checks and balances. In order for a violation to "count" toward a public nuisance action, an enforcement officer would have to verify a complaint and issue a ticket to the person(s) responsible. This means that an officer on the scene would evaluate complaints by a neighbor before any ticket could be issued. Since the officer would have to prove in court that a violation was legitimate, he or she would need to make sure that a complaint was not frivolous.
Also, the ordinance says that the owner must be given an opportunity to fix the problem after being notified, and that multiple violations within a 24-hour period only count as a single violation, so one loud party with several tickets being issued could not result in a public nuisance being declared. In fact, the ordinance requires that at least 45 days go by between the issuance of the 2nd and 3rd notice of violation in a one year period.
4. Would the existing ordinances about noise, trash and weeds still be enforced?
Yes, the public nuisance ordinance can be thought of as an "umbrella ordinance" which is applied in addition to the existing ordinances about the individual violations. When enforcement of individual violations fails to change the situation at a problem property, the nuisance ordinance becomes another tool for solving the problems.
5. In the case of a rental property, who would be held responsible?
In the end, if the tenant hasn't fixed the problem, the property owner would be held responsible. However, before the City would consider using the public nuisance ordinance, tickets must have been issued to the individuals most directly responsible for the problem. In the case of a rental property, this means that the Police Department would have issued a ticket to the tenants who have created the noise, party or disturbance problem before the property owner would ever become involved in the problem. If the problem involved health and safety violations (rubbish, junk vehicles, etc.) the owner and the tenant would already have received notices of the problem, and the City would have issued a ticket for failure to address the problem.
6. What kind of remedies would the City seek under the ordinance?
The goal of the ordinance is to resolve chronic problems in the neighborhoods, so the focus of the ordinance is on working with the property owner to make improvements. A voluntary action plan could be developed between the City and the owner to both resolve the problem and avoid the need for court orders under the ordinance. If the owner was unwilling to resolve the problem through an abatement plan, the City would have the ability to take an owner to court under the ordinance. Remedies would then come in the form of a municipal court order. The Court could order the owner to do whatever is appropriate to resolve the problem. This might include such things as ordering a particular tenant to be evicted, clean-up of the property, or an order that a certain person not engage in a certain kind of behavior.
The only criminal penalties that could result from the ordinance would occur if someone knowingly ignored or disobeyed a court order. If, for example, someone was ordered by the court to clean up a property and they did not follow the order, that person could be prosecuted in Municipal Court.
7. After getting a violation notice, what would the property owner need to do?
If a person received a notice of violation and wanted to take the steps necessary to fix the problem, that person could meet with the Code Compliance Case Manager and try to reach an agreement with the City about how the problems at the property can be addressed. No person would be brought into court under a public nuisance action if such an agreement was reached and the person did what he or she had agreed to do. The City would also offer a variety of resources for dealing with problems, including the City's community mediation program, the assistance of the Code Compliance Case Manager in developing ideas for addressing the problem, and any other resources available from the City.
8. What would happen to a landlord if he or she received a notice of violation and did everything possible to fix the problem, but was not successful?
If a landlord received a notice of violation and had evicted the people causing the problems, and had done everything reasonably possible to avoid more of the same kinds of problems, then the City could not use that violation toward declaring the property to be a public nuisance. This would be true even if the landlord had gone to court and tried to evict the tenant but was not successful.
9. Who do I contact when I know of a problem that might meet the requirements of the public nuisance ordinance?
Anyone with a question or complaint should call the Nuisance Hotline at (970) 416-2200.