In the Spokane Valley neighborhood north of Kaiser Aluminum sits an infamous property that has infuriated neighbors and been the subject of Superior Court lawsuits.
The lawn is more brown than green. Old cars, in various states of disrepair, lie around the property. The home itself is hard to see, hidden behind heaps of material covered in blue tarps.
There’s also a pink paper notice out front, signed by the city building official and dated June 11.
“DO NOT ENTER – DO NOT OCCUPY,” it reads. “DANGEROUS STRUCTURES AND PREMISES.”
Spokane Valley, with a judge’s permission, kicked Richard “Greg” Ross out of his house at 4216 N. Best Road. The city says it’s unsafe for anyone to live there.
The city ultimately evicted Ross for building violations, not the look of his yard, but neighbors have complained for years about aesthetic issues and alleged criminal activity at the property.
It shouldn’t take years to address chronic nuisance issues, some Spokane Valley City Councilmembers say. They argue the city needs to modify its codes or policies, which already prohibit the accumulation of nuisances such as junk cars and trash, so neighbors don’t have to live next to eyesores and criminal hotspots for years.
City Council has asked staff to review Spokane Valley’s nuisance laws and provide recommendations on how to improve them or speed up enforcement timelines. The city might modify its policies and require offenders to remove or hide nuisances more quickly.
City Councilwoman Pam Haley said staff could have a report ready by this fall.
“There has to be a happy medium between voluntary compliance for a couple weeks and five years,” Haley said at a City Council meeting in June. “What do we do to make sure the really hardcore houses get dealt with?”
Laws of the land
What can a homeowner do on her own land?
Many Americans would say anything, since she should be able to do what she wants on her own property.
The law says different.
City codes throughout the country place restrictions on what homeowners can do on their own land.
Spokane Valley is no exception. City code states that people can’t have a “nuisance” on their land that “jeopardizes the health, safety, prosperity, quiet enjoyment of property, or welfare of others, offends common decency or public morality, or obstructs or interferes with the free use of public ways, places, or bodies of water.”
“There’s got to be common sense where you’ve got to set some rules somewhere,” City Councilman Arne Woodard told The Spokesman-Review.
City code includes a long list of what homeowners can’t do. There are rules against graffiti, caps on the number of yard sales per year (three) and prohibitions against property being too dusty.
A homeowner’s kids can’t dig a hole and leave it in the front yard if it “constitutes a concealed danger.” Nor can a property owner leave a refrigerator out front or store a broken Jet Ski in the open.
The city can evict people for committing certain crimes at their home, too. It doesn’t happen often, but if an individual has one nuisance violation and commits four crimes at their property in a 12-month window, or if the individual simply commits five crimes in that time frame, Spokane Valley can ask a judge for permission to kick out the property owner. In eviction scenarios, the city boards up the house and the owner can return in a year.
Spokane Valley has begun discussions on a wide array of code changes that would include new rules for noxious weeds, RVs, mandatory trash pickup and broken windows, but City Councilmembers have expressed the most concern about three types of nuisance violations: The accumulation of garbage, storage of junkers and ongoing criminal activity.
Haley and Woodard say they believe strongly in private property rights. But they also say aesthetic issues at a home don’t merely impact the homeowner. What one property owner does affects the neighbors too, they say.
“When you swing your hand, you can swing your hand as much as you want until it comes into contact with my face,” Woodard said. “Now you’ve infringed on my rights.”
One ugly house can hurt neighborhood property values, Haley and Woodard say. Haley said she knows some people have simply moved rather than live next to a home with chronic nuisance issues.
“A lot of these people don’t realize that at some point their activities devalue the property around them, not even just theirs,” Woodard said. “People don’t expect, I don’t think, to make a fortune on their homes, but they certainly don’t like the fact that somebody else’s property can bring theirs down.”
Need for speed
In the past few months, Spokane Valley has filed at least nine summons in Spokane County Superior Court against property owners in an effort to force the owners to abate nuisances on their property.
Most of the homeowners named in those summons have violated Spokane Valley’s garbage and junkers policies, the city alleges.
In general, the city tries to work with property owners. Most nuisance issues never make it to the courts, Spokane Valley attorney Caitlin Prunty said.
Even though nuisance violation filings keep showing up in Superior Court, Spokane Valley officials say they’re typically somewhat lenient in how they enforce property rules.
“Our whole process is set up on voluntary compliance,” Deputy City Manager John Hohman said at the City Council meeting in June. “Maybe it’s gone a little too far in some ways. Maybe we give them a little too much time.”
Hohman noted that “the complainants usually get pretty frustrated by that time frame.”
Haley said the timeliness issue is the most important. Woodard said in addition to timeliness, the city needs to crack down on uninhabitable homes and properties with multiple RVs being used as residences.
Some City Councilmembers noted during the June meeting that many individuals violating the city’s nuisance code aren’t doing it merely to annoy their neighbors.
Often a homeowner committing nuisance violations has other issues going on in their life, Woodard said.
He said the city shouldn’t be lenient with people stubbornly ignoring city code, but nuisance codes and policies shouldn’t lead to the city punishing people who are already struggling.
“I don’t want grandma kicked out of her house just because she can’t paint it or just because her grass got tall,” Woodard said. “We’ve got to write the law so it has common sense in it and it has leeway or flexibility without having to plain drop the hammer on people. We just want compliance.”
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