By Tim Cox
City council officials have worked out the details of a proposed update of city ordinances prohibiting open storage of junk or junk vehicles and excessively tall grass.
Members of city council's community betterment committee hashed over details of the ordinance during a meeting Tuesday. Discussion centered around language in the ordinance that could be considered ambiguous and about the onus the legislation places on landlords.
Officials plan to shorten the timeframes established in current ordinances to allow the city to intervene and correct problems. The proposed update also lowers the allowable height of grass from 12 inches to 10 inches.
The updated ordinance would allow the city to remove junk cars or trash from a property or have the lawn cut, all of which would be billed to the property owner, plus administrative fees. The full council is expected to consider the issue at the Oct. 10 meeting.
Council member Denny Smith said he heard concerns from one landlord who complained that property owners can be prosecuted for the actions of their tenants in a shorter timeframe than tenants can generally be evicted. Council member Angie King, who owns rental properties, expressed similar concerns.
Council member Rick Bachelor said landlords should protect themselves in the lease agreements they strike with tenants.
"You have the opportunity to write a tighter lease," Bachelor said. "There are ways a property owner can protect themselves."
Angela Nickell, the city's assistant law director, largely agreed.
"A lot of landlords use generic contracts that don't protect them properly," Nickell said.
King said no matter what is written in a lease, landlords cannot remove someone's junk vehicle or other items from the property without consent of the tenant.
"Your hands might be tied, but they're not cut off," Nickell said, adding that landlords can aggressively pursue eviction if tenants fail to meet the terms of rental agreements.
Council members decided to leave the language that puts ultimate responsibility on the owner of the land into the updated ordinance. Without it, the ordinance would lack the legal teeth city officials are looking for, they said.
City officials dropped plans to charge fees of up to $200 per hour when city workers have to mow grass or remove junk from a property. Instead, fees will reflect actual expenses.
Charging excessive fees amounts to a fine without due process, although some other communities do it, officials said. Violators of the ordinance still would be summoned to municipal court on a minor misdemeanor and would be subject to court fines in addition to administrative fees due the city.