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Henry County could crack down on trashy homes

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By Christopher Brooke

Henry County Fiscal Court approved an expanded nuisance ordinance in order to go after more ramshackle properties at its May 20 meeting.
The current ordinance defines as a nuisance those properties in residential-, commercial- or agricultural-zoned areas that have gotten to conditions that “render such premises or building dangerous or detrimental or adverse to the health and welfare of occupants of the premises or surrounding premises.”
Proposed amendments to the ordinance would add that storing “construction and demolition debris, debris, garbage, junk, refuse, rubbish, or trash, which is visible from the public road” to the lists of nuisances.
This would not include regular scheduled pickups by waste haulers.
Audience members attending the meeting expressed their support for tougher measures against those who trash their own places and impact their neighbor’s properties.
Before the fiscal court discussed the particulars, they heard from Donna Curran, who saw the property next to hers go downhill. This hurt the value of their home after she and her husband bought land on a subdivided farm and built a log cabin there.
It had been their dream, but the reality has turned out different after the next-door property was sold. Curran handed out pictures to the county officials, including a Google image that showed the property in question from above. The image looked like the property contains a collapsing house surrounded by a field of debris.
“To be honest, it looks like a tornado hit it,” she said.
The second picture showed more garbage and trash.
The neighbor’s home has gotten so much worse in the last seven years, it has significantly devalued the Curran’s property, according to an appraisal they had done, she said.
“We’ve got five kids that are going to inherit this property that has lost a lot of value,” Curran told the fiscal court. “We’ve put our hearts into this house.”
Loose dogs hang around and chase Curran and her daughter.
“When I get out to cut my grass I pick up empty egg cartons, paper plates that have food all over them, big things of dog food bags, Styrofoam cups, cans,” Curran said. “I picked up some Christmas bows that had blown over in my yard.”
Last year, there was a four-to-five month yard sale where people were coming constantly, Curran recalled. Attendees used their property to park.
Bylaws haven’t seemed to work, either. Every bylaw on maintaining the property has been broken since the neighbors bought it.
She tried to deal with the neighbors directly, without any intervention by authorities, but without success.
“I really hope you guys will listen … to help people like me who have put their whole life into their property and taken care of it and love it,” Curran said.
Magistrate Nick Hawkins, who serves on the planning and zoning committee, then presented the amendments made by committee to the fiscal court, which also would target things like:
• mulch and construction materials being stockpiled on a property for improvements without being used for 90 days
• yard maintenance equipment and recreational equipment like bikes, motorcycles, jet skies and snowmobiles that are stored in a “haphazard, unorganized and unprotected manner”
• and household, commercial and industrial items that get stored for more than two weeks outside and visible from other properties and public right of ways.
The proposal also added definitions for what “construction and demolition,” “debris,” “garbage,” “refuse,” “rubbish” and “trash” means.
Rubbish, for example, means both combustible and noncombustible materials, including paper products, cardboard, plastic products, as well as auto parts, tires, discarded furniture, abandoned appliances and construction materials that have been exposed to the elements.
“A lot of fancy legal terms, it’s basically just saying that the county would have the right to cite someone for a nuisance having a whole lot of garbage piled up outside, causing a detrimental effect on a neighbor,” Hawkins said.
The existing ordinance makes a conviction punishable by a fine of up to $500.
Would a bag of trash be considered a nuisance?
Not if it’s out there for regular collection, Hawkins said. Trash sitting out for six months would be a nuisance under this proposal.
Magistrate David Brown said he understands that complaints have to be made first in connection with nuisances.
The county would have the right to pursue nuisances, Judge-Executive John Logan Brent said. “We get enough complaints to keep us busy.”
Asked about the timeframe for enforcement, Hawkins said those notified of problems have 90 days to clean up their property.
If somebody tries to take advantage of the ordinance, the fiscal court could always amend or repeal it, said Brent.
“Right now, there are a whole lot more problems without this ordinance than there are with it. This lady that spoke here tonight… she told her story and she cried in my office… they worked to build this piece of property and they’ve had half the value taken away,” the Brent said. “That’s not fair, that’s not fair in any scenario.”
“This is to keep a small percentage of people from doing whatever they want regardless what their neighbor thinks, or who cares what the world thinks,” Brown said.
Saying citizens expect the fiscal court to address these kinds of situations, Hawkins made a motion to approve the first reading.
The fiscal court approved the motion on a second from Brown.
County officials wanted to be sure that this ordinance wouldn’t hurt farmers. Nobody wants to go after a farmer for having an old tractor sitting outside a barn, for example, they discussed.
The existing ordinance spares property that is assessed as agricultural land from enforcement.
That led audience members to wonder if their neighbor could avoid citation as a farm.
These changes would allow the county to go after blighted properties, and get results, county officials said..
“Ninety-nine percent of people, when you serve them and go to court, they get busy,” Brent said.