Commissioners approve Community Decay Ordinance

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The Lincoln County Commission had the second reading of the Community Decay Ordinance at their Dec. 12 meeting.

Deputy Lincoln County Attorney Josh Nemeth said that the final version of the ordinance incorporated comment from the commissioners regarding language in the ordinance and clarifications.

“We wanted to include a definition just to make it clear to everybody that does read the ordinance that adjacent is not limited just to abutting,” he said.

Nemeth gave as an example a property that is separated from a public road by an empty lot, and so is visible from the roadway. If that property were being used as an unauthorized junkyard, it would violate the spirit of the ordinance.

“So that’s why we clarified that definition,” he said.

In addition, the ordinance had lacked a definition of “public roadway,” he said.

In order to meet the spirit of the ordinance, they chose to use the definition used in state law in regard to driving under the influence, he said.

“Which does leave it open to, basically, anywhere,` where a vehicle, lawfully, is traveling — as long as it is open to the public,” he said.

Nemeth said that one of the major concerns was a situation such as a private subdivision.

“Technically, that road is private,” he said. “But, it’s public use.”

Nemeth said that they wanted to ensure they protected property rights of individuals who might be negatively affected by neighbors without that clarification in the ordinance.

At the same time, Nemeth said the ordinance also seeks to protect the rights of property owners from people who might move into an area and try to use the ordinance against their neighbors.

To that end, they included the ability for the County Health Department and the County Attorney, “to exercise discretion when it comes to enforcement,” he said.

Nemeth said that the situation they considered would involve someone who lives far from everyone else and has vehicles in their yard. If someone were to purchase property next to that one at a cheaper price due to the condition of the other property, then attempt to force their neighbor to clean up the property in order to raise his own property value, it would not be in the spirit of the ordinance.

“We wanted to protect that individual that otherwise is not causing any harm,” he said.

That doesn’t mean any existing conditions are “grandfathered in,” he said. But, it is intended to prevent individuals from using county ordinances “predatorially for their own private purposes.”

Commissioner Mike Cole asked whether there was any projected financial or time impact on either the County Health Department or the County Sheriff’s Office with the new ordinance.

County Health Department Director Kathi Hooper said that she does not anticipate the impact would be more than the department is already dealing with, as it currently receives complaints about properties the ordinance is directed toward.

Nemeth said that currently the properties in question are already being addressed by the County Health Department and County Attorney.

“As of right now, there are present conditions that we’re dealing with in not the most appropriate way,” he said.

The existing laws that they use to address problems include public nuisance laws or criminal charges that only assess fees on people who are already without sufficient means to deal with the condition of their property, he said.

With the Community Decay Ordinance, Nemeth said he anticipates it will give the county the ability to help property owners to clean up their properties.

“I don’t think it’s going to add to our workload. It might increase the use of county resources in cleaning those up, but that’s the result that we’ve wanted all along, that we haven’t been able to get to,” Nemeth said.

In addition, the ordinance will allow for means such as tax liens to recuperate costs incurred by the county in cleaning up property, he said.

Commissioner Mark Peck noted that the ordinance only applies to the county, and would not include property inside city limits.

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