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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Task force dogs illegal junkyards

Spokane County commissioners were talking trash Tuesday.

More specifically, they discussed their plan to create a task force to crack down on illegal auto junkyards that litter the county.

Some junkyard operators have been warned a half dozen times to remove the vehicles cluttering their property, but they have ignored officials and refused to pay fines. As many as 60 dilapidated vehicles are on some sites.

Why should they clean up their property or pay fines if no one enforces the rules? asked Commissioner Phil Harris. “I’m really concerned we’re not doing what we should be doing about it,” he said. “If they don’t correct it, we’ve got to slam the door.”

Now the county’s code enforcement officials, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and prosecuting attorneys are teaming to work as junkyard dogs, putting the bite on property owners to force them to clean up their messes.

If they don’t, the county can take action then charge the landowner the cost of removing the vehicles. Noncompliant property owners also can be fined as much as $250 per day over and above the cleanup charge. Task force members will work together to determine the best way to handle each case.

Harris said that work needs to begin immediately.

Officials estimate dozens of illegal junkyards are scattered across the county, but no firm number exists.

So far, departments have been doing the “old trick” of waiting for someone else to act, said Harris as he crossed his arms in front of him pointing in opposite directions like the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.”

The operations on the West Plains in particular are fire and environmental hazards, he said, and besides being violations of zoning laws, often harbor methamphetamine labs and stolen-car chop shops.

Spokane County property owners are prohibited from storing more than two junk cars on their property unless they are in a garage or other building.

Spokane County Fire District 5 officials say gas and other fluids are often not drained from the vehicles, leading to fires and in one case an explosion that injured a person working on a vehicle.

In the course of trying to put out or investigate reports of fires, however, district workers report they have been threatened by some property owners angry about anyone coming onto their land.

Code enforcement personnel now sometimes ask deputies to accompany them. Though the deputies can’t search the sites for illegal activity or stolen cars, they can serve as protection, said Undersheriff Larry Lindskog. “Some of the places code enforcement is going aren’t the safest places to be,” he said.

“I’m in full support of beefing up our process,” said Commissioner Mark Richard. But he emphasized that not all people with an illegal number of cars on their property are engaging in other illegal activities.

The intent of the new task force is not to go after people with three or four junk vehicles, but to tackle the most egregious violators first, he said.

That could disappoint many neighboring property owners, said Commissioner Todd Mielke.

“We already get calls from people complaining about the neighbor having a bus on their property and asking, ‘Isn’t there something you can do about it?’ ” said Mielke.

Until May of last year, property owners could store as many vehicles as they wanted provided they were shielded from public view by at least a 6-foot fence, said county Building and Planning Director Jim Manson.

Many people took advantage of that provision and are not out of compliance now, provided they aren’t adding vehicles, Manson said.

But the sale of parts is not allowed unless a junkyard has a business license and is operating in a zone where junkyards are permitted.

It will take at least two years to tackle the worst violators, said Lindskog.

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