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Unusual Jobs: City code enforcement cleaning up messes

Code enforcement officer Scott Emmerson oversees cleanup at a home on the 300 block of East Eighth Avenue on Monday. Chris Van Gelder, left, adds a tire to the pile being cleared at the rear of the house. (Dan Pelle)
Code enforcement officer Scott Emmerson oversees cleanup at a home on the 300 block of East Eighth Avenue on Monday. Chris Van Gelder, left, adds a tire to the pile being cleared at the rear of the house. (Dan Pelle)

Tucked away on a shady, tree-covered lot on a quiet South Hill street sits a little old house with good bones. Its wood siding is painted white and tall dormers jut out from the roof. Beautifully crafted light green trim lines its boarded-up windows.

The crew working in the back is there to dig, drag and haul out a truckload of rotted firewood and old furniture that’s been heaped on an old cement patio. The smell of mold hangs in the air.

It’s the first stop of the day for code enforcement officer Scott Emmerson. He’s been working the East Central, Garry Park and Lincoln Heights neighborhoods since the city established a code enforcement office in 1993.

“The man who lived here died and there is no one to take care of the property,” Emmerson said, standing in the home’s backyard next to a shed with a sagging roof.

Now the house is boarded up – to keep squatters out – and slated for demolition as soon as the asbestos inspection comes back clean.

“It’s not a safe situation we have here,” Emmerson said. “We have a family with small children right next door.”

Emmerson is one of six officers who comes out and takes a look at houses and lots when a complaint about tall weeds, leaning garages, junk cars or trash piles comes in to the city.

Code enforcement officers don’t drive around looking for violations.

“We respond to the complaints we get,” Emmerson said. “And our job is really to find a way to clean up the mess and keep people out of the court system.”

Every morning, Emmerson picks up between eight and 10 new cases at the Code Enforcement Office at City Hall. These are complaints that have come in the day before, and the first step in the process is an inspection of the property.

If Emmerson finds code violations he leaves a notice asking the property owner to take care of things within 15 days. Then he returns to check on things. If nothing has changed, then a contractor hired by the property owner may get another 10 days to clean things up. Emmerson will return on the 10th day to check on the progress. If things aren’t taken care of, the property owner may face a $513 fine.

One of the biggest problems right now is bank-owned foreclosed homes that sit empty. Emmerson and his colleagues refer to them as zombie properties: They are there, but they aren’t quite alive and no one takes care of them.

One such home, a few blocks from Rockwood Boulevard, had a tree fall in its backyard during the recent windstorms.

Neighbors called Code Enforcement because the tree is a fire hazard and the overgrown property is unsightly. On this Monday, Emmerson is returning to check on things – and nothing has changed.

“It’s really a big problem,” he said, standing on the sidewalk. “We try to reach the owners, but if we don’t get a response we have to deal with it.”

Code Enforcement has one four-person work crew to dispatch.

That crew hauls out between 20 and 30 tons of debris, garbage and weeds every month, and the property owner is billed $82 an hour plus $119 for each ton of trash that’s hauled away.

“It goes on the utility bill,” Emmerson said.

He stops at two East Central properties, and one a bit farther up the hill, to check on complaints and finds all have been resolved.

Before noon, he makes time for a longer visit with a property owner he’s been working with since July. Neighbors called code enforcement because her backyard was overgrown with tall weeds and she had junk cars in her driveway.

She doesn’t want her name in the paper, but said while she was disappointed her neighbors called the city and complained instead of talking to her, she’s been happy with the cleanup process.

Her son helped her mow the tall weeds and haul them off, and she’s only got one small old car left. She’s hoping to sell that one on Craigslist.

“We have 80 percent voluntary compliance,” Emmerson said. “There’s a lot of job satisfaction in seeing things work out.”

Of course things don’t always go as easily. Emmerson has been in a few “altercations” as he calls it, over the years. He’s had a rifle pointed at him and he’s been bitten by dogs more than once, yet he still approaches people in a friendly manner.

“I just go in and say, ‘Hey, I’m Scott. What’s going on with the weeds here?’ or whatever it is,” Emmerson said. “If you treat people with dignity and respect you get a better response.”

Emmerson said the most common reason a property owner doesn’t respond to complaints is life circumstances such as health issues.

“You never know what’s going on in people’s lives,” Emmerson said. “They get overwhelmed.”

A small number of cases turn into chronic nuisance properties and the owners refuse collaboration.

Some feel very strongly about their property rights, Emmerson said.

“But hey, their neighbor has the right to be outside without smelling their garbage,” Emmerson said. “They forget about that.”

And that’s the most common complaint: piles of garbage.

Junk cars are high on the list of complaints, too, as are noise complaints, but Emmerson takes it all in stride. He’s organized and methodical – that’s the Marine training showing through – and remarkably easy going for someone in a confrontational profession.

He agrees that he probably sees a city street differently than most people – he’ll notice that one overgrown yard, or the old cars parked on the grass, but he’s not frustrated by the enormous never-ending task ahead of him.

“The thing is that basically every property has a code violation,” he said. “There’s always a fence that’s in the wrong place or too tall or whatever. You just can’t let it get to you.”

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