DUNEDIN – A resident walks through a neighborhood, sees an abandoned deteriorating house, and she wonders why it is taking years to bring the property into compliance with city codes.
Easier said than done in many cities for several reasons – deceased or mentally ill owners, the inability to enter private property, and legal procedures, to name a few of the issues involved.
Dunedin City Manager Jennifer Bramley said at the commission’s April 3 meeting that throughout her career the most difficult division to manage is code enforcement.
“And the reason for that is during the same morning and the same hour I may get a phone call that there is too much code compliance and the next one there is not enough,” she said. “It’s always the pendulum swings both ways and the recession, the Great Recession, didn’t help that at all.”
During the code enforcement workshop, city commissioners got a glimpse of such properties that have more than $100,000 in liens. They also expressed support for staff to use a chronic nuisance ordinance to help bring some properties up to codes.
“We have had properties that have been in the foreclosure process for many years, bankruptcy, court procedures,” city Planning and Development Director Greg Rice said.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said city officials understand the frustration of residents who see the distressed properties.
“We are as equally frustrated. But it is what it is, what it is, what is. When it is legal and you can only do things in a certain way, that’s all you can do,” Bujalski said.
City officials are dealing with the fallout of the recession, she said.
“It is the legal process we have to go through. A lot of them are bank-owned. The banks are not going to move. They have been our nightmare, which again is why we came up with the chronic nuisance ordinance. So, we are doing the best we can. I think the nuisance ordinance is one of those things,” Bujalski said.
In 2007, the city had $34,000 in code fines and today it has more than $700,000, city reports say.
City officials have increased their efforts and to address the problems efficiently, Bramley said.
A piece of property is deemed to exhibit a pattern of nuisance activity if the Sheriff’s Office has responded to three or more nuisance activities at the property within 30 days. It also could be considered as such if code violations aren’t corrected by the time ordered by the code enforcement board. Several other factors also apply to the definition.
The inability to enter private property, complicates enforcement, city officials say.
“It’s security and safety of the code enforcement officer,” City Attorney Tom Trask said.
Whether city officials use the chronic nuisance ordinance or have the code enforcement board enter an order authorizing the city take certain actions, they need to have a deputy sheriff provide protection on private property, he said.
Trask explained other legal requirements, such as providing locations to store items while city officials go through the notice process with property owners.
“There is a time period that we have to hold the property to give notice to the property owner that if they want it back they would have an opportunity to take it back,” Trask said.
He warned commissioners that they will get complaints when they take action against nuisance properties.
“People are going to show up right here and say, ‘This is what’s happening on my property’ and you have to have a strong constitution that you understand that we are going to be doing these things to get the properties in compliance,” Trask said.
Commissioner Moe Freaney said she could support the steps city officials plan to take to deal with nuisance properties.
“I do think it’s good to get into this; I do think we should hold people accountable. I think it is a TLC world where there is a balance we got to work with,” she said.
As far as the costs of bringing properties in compliance, Bujalski noted the city made $703,000 in code enforcement fees received in the fiscal year 2017-2018.
“That covers your costs and whatever is left over goes into reserves,” she said.
“That’s a great point. It is the perfect way to do it,” Freaney said.
City officials also may post signs on vacant property in violation of codes so that people know that they are working to bring them in compliance.
“Beautiful, perfect,” Commissioner John Tornga said.
“The city of Fort Myers does it with a metal sign and steel stake,” Trask said. “You may want to do that to keep it on those properties”
Despite the challenges they face dealing with distressed properties, city officials note in memos that the code enforcement division, the city attorney and the Dunedin Code Enforcement Board have combined efforts to clean up Dunedin, while working through the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Almost $3 million in fines have been collected.
“I represent a lot of cities and I represent either the code enforcement board or I prosecute before code enforcement boards or I’m the special magistrate or I’m the special master. This one is a well-oiled machine here compared to the other 10 cities we are doing,” Trask said. “Obviously there are going to have to be some issues we will have to resolve. As far as properties, there will always be another one.”