June 1, 1995 in Washington Voices

Breaking Code From Barking Dogs To Abandoned Houses, City Code Enforcement Officers Investigate Hazards Of All Sorts

Bruce Krasnow Staff writer
 

Whatever ails a neighborhood - from junk cars to piles of worn-out tires to weed-infested lawns to too-tall fences - ends up before Terry Clegg and his code enforcement officers.

One day recently, city code enforcement supervisor Clegg inspected an old house in Hillyard that neighbors say is unsafe. He checked on the cleanup of a tire pile near Beacon Hill, investigated an illegal dumping complaint and inspected the yard of a man using his West Central property to store scrap metal.

His officers have gotten out of bed at 2 a.m. to check on noise complaints from parking lot sweepers at a North Side shopping center. The department now handles all junk car complaints for the police department and Clegg’s been delegated enforcement for the city’s ordinance that bans doors on the city’s eight video booths and adult arcades.

Started as a way to investigate zoning complaints, the code enforcement department has evolved into a one-stop shop for citizen gripes.

“My life has been threatened four or five times. I’ve been shot at,” says Clegg.

“We can only carry a ballpoint pen. We aren’t like a police officer who has guns and all that stuff.”

Last year the office took more than 3,400 complaints and handled nearly 7,000 inspections. It also processed paper work for 200 abandoned vehicles that were hauled away for scrap.

Unlike the unincorporated areas, the city has authority, after proper court action, to go onto properties and clean up garbage, cut down weeds that pose a fire hazard and demolish unsafe buildings. It can recoup its costs by sending owners a bill or putting a lien on property.

While the city department employs four officers, support staff, a supervisor and even backhoe drivers, the office for Spokane County has just two people - and they are responsible for land-use planning tasks as well.

“There is a presumption that counties are more rural than cities,” says Allan deLaubenfels, the county’s enforcement chief, who handles similar complaints in the unincorporated area. “We do not have the authority to take anything off any property.”

Both the city and the county act only after a specific complaint. Despite an equal population, the county has about 300 complaints a year, and the city, more than 3,000.

For the two city officers assigned to the North Side, the most vivid complaints involve people whose lives have simply overwhelmed them.

Officer Barbara Haley, assigned to northeast Spokane, remembers a man whose home was stacked floor to ceiling with everything from aluminum cans, postcards and match books to flattened ice cream cartons.

Another man had filled his house so much that he had to dig a hole underneath and live in an outside crawl space.

“He finally used every inch of that house and couldn’t get in,” remembers Clegg.

Often these are older people whose experiences during the Depression still haunt them.

“It’s in their minds - they have to save everything,” according to Clegg.

North Side officer Deborah Logan said a West Central family recently called the police because it didn’t want her taking away its garbage.

“Maybe they thought it was going to evaporate or something,” Logan says.

But she also remembers a woman who was helped by the city’s involvement. Neighbors had complained about garbage, stray pets, bad wiring and plumbing at the home on West Dean.

This year, the woman was relocated to a downtown apartment, and her son came over from Western Washington to clean up the home. The woman realizes the property was too much for her, and it’s now up for sale.

“They’re nice people,” says Logan. “They just don’t have any kind of organizational skills.”

Other issues are not as easily resolved.

Neighbors living near a used-car lot on North Monroe have complained six different times about the business owner parking vehicles on sidewalks, obstructing the path of pedestrians. Despite letters and visits to the site, the violation persists.

“After they’ve been doing it a while, they feel they have a right,” said Clegg.

Eventually, the city may need to go to court so a judge can order the business to comply. But that is always a last resort.

Code-enforcement officers prefer to use persuasion and diplomacy.

“You have to be careful that this is not the government coming in telling you how to run your life,” Logan says.

Often a letter from the department is enough.

“Most people are reasonable. It’s things they want to do but just haven’t had the time to do,” says Logan.

Other times, that tack doesn’t work.

Haley has been working for months trying to get the owner of a house on East Cataldo to clean up his junk. The yard has at least five junk cars, stacks of wood and tires, and piles of scrap metal.

“This just looks like a shantytown,” said Clegg.

The letters from the department have gone unheeded, and the man argues he needs to save the junk until there is enough value in the scrap metal to pay for disposal of what’s left.

Clegg said the city has inherited these responsibilities by default.

Officer Haley, for instance, carries a roll of duct tape to seal the doors of discarded refrigerators. That helps prevent kids getting locked inside and suffocating.

The refrigerators can also be picked up by the city and disposed of within days.

Abandoned structures can be just as dangerous.

“An open and vacant building is dangerous,” Clegg said. “The city has to take care of it or can get a lawsuit. It’s not that we’re poking our head into other people’s business; it is the city’s business.”

An old tire pile near Beacon Hill is a perfect example, says Clegg.

Though the owner of the property started accepting tires and reselling them on a small scale, the situation just got out of hand.

The piles grew larger and larger, eventually topping 40-feet high.

If the pile had caught on fire, North Side residents from Colbert to Logan would have been evacuated and thousands of dollars would have been spent on fighting the blaze.

Clegg’s officers were the first to recognize the problems and are now working with the state Department of Ecology to remove the piles.

Illegal dumping is another example. The department removed 481 tons of garbage from public and private property last year, yet more complaints come in daily. Some of the work can be charged back to property owners, but most gets handled and paid for by the city.

For Clegg, it comes down to having the financial ability and political will to enforce the laws passed by the City Council.

Adds Officer Logan: “There has to be laws so people can co-exist.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

COMPLAINTS HANDLED

Here is the number of complaints handled by city code enforcement officers since the office opened in August of 1988.

1988: 250

1990: 900

1991: 1,800

1992: 2,400

1993: 5,432

1994: 6,883

In 1994 the complaints centered on zoning (1,036), vacant buildings (335), abandoned vehicles (736) and garbage (1,049).

This sidebar appeared with the story: COMPLAINTS HANDLED Here is the number of complaints handled by city code enforcement officers since the office opened in August of 1988.

1988: 250 1990: 900 1991: 1,800 1992: 2,400 1993: 5,432 1994: 6,883 In 1994 the complaints centered on zoning (1,036), vacant buildings (335), abandoned vehicles (736) and garbage (1,049).


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email