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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley cracks down on ‘nuisance’ properties, but one council member says new law goes too far

Spokane Valley City Hall is seen on May 11, 2022.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Valley has significantly strengthened its chronic nuisance law, giving the city greater authority to crack down on poorly maintained or abandoned homes, drug dens and any property that becomes the site of criminal activity.

The City Council approved the change late last month following a 6-1 vote, with City Councilman Ben Wick opposing it.

Local governments use nuisance laws to enforce neighborhood aesthetics and maintain public health. For instance, Spokane Valley’s nuisance law prevents homeowners from leaving broken snowmobiles in their front yards, spray painting graffiti on their clapboards and holding more than three yard sales a year.

The amendment to Spokane Valley’s chronic nuisance law makes it easier for city staff to take legal action against properties with multiple nuisance violations.

Under the former version of the chronic nuisance law, Spokane Valley could sue a property owner under two scenarios: If the property was home to one nuisance violation and four crimes in a year, or simply five crimes in a year. A crime, as defined by the Valley’s nuisance code, doesn’t require a felony conviction. It can be an arrest or misdemeanor offense.

If a property hit those benchmarks, Spokane Valley could ask a judge for permission to “abate” the nuisance at the property. For example, the city could tow away junk cars or tear down unsafe structures. Staff could also board up the property and evict the inhabitants for a year.

The new version of the law allows the city to take legal action more quickly and more often.

Now, a property counts as a chronic nuisance if it has three or more nuisance violations in a 60-day window, with at least one violation counting as criminal. Alternatively, a property becomes a chronic nuisance if it has five violations – with one counting as criminal – in a year.

Not only does the new law lower the bar for becoming a chronic nuisance, it gives the city more power to punish the property owner. In addition to asking a judge’s permission to abate a nuisance, Spokane Valley can now seek permission to put a property in receivership.

In that instance, a third party would put the property up for sale without the owner’s consent. Proceeds from the sale would cover the city’s costs for cleaning the property and the receiver’s fees. Any money left over, after taxes, liens and mortgages have been paid, will go to the original property owner.

With the exception of Wick, City Council members said the stricter ordinance was needed to go after homes and buildings that violate the spirit – but not the letter –of the nuisance law.

Council members said the city has to be able to eliminate properties that have made neighborhoods unsafe and lowered nearby property values. They said the primary intent of the new law is to go after buildings that become crime hot spots and plague areas for years.

“It’s not going after your friend next door who just has a broken-down car and some weeds,” Mayor Pam Haley said. “We’re not out to get anybody, we’re trying to protect neighbors from criminal activity.”

Wick said the receivership provision is too extreme.

“We’re literally going to be taking people’s property if we go down this path,” he said in a City Council meeting.

Other council members said they’re confident the city won’t use the receivership provision to go after small offenders.

Councilman Tim Hattenburg said the city’s code enforcement staff prioritize voluntary compliance.

If someone can’t trim their hedges or mow their lawn, that doesn’t mean staff will immediately take them to court, Hattenburg said.

“There’s some cases where people are either handicapped or elderly or they don’t have a lot of money and can’t do anything about it,” he said. “We will definitely work with that situation.”

Wick said he knows the intent is to go after problem properties that cause real harm to their neighbors.

But he stressed that the way the law is written, city staff could theoretically try to take someone’s house away if they have cinder blocks and a sofa in their yard and get arrested at home for any reason.

Leaving the decision up to a judge seems risky, Wick said.

“They’re going to interpret the law, and it seems pretty clear,” he said. “They’re not going to go in and have sympathy on a senior citizen or anything like that.”

Councilman Rod Higgins said he thinks the updated ordinance is reasonable and necessary.

“I don’t think this is overdoing anything,” Higgins said in May. “It’s long overdue.”