Sunday, September 25, 2016

What does active code enforcement look like? Letter to the City of Grants Pass

Honorable Public Servants,

I will come to the October 17th workshop if I can.  I have to make a living, so I may not be able to.  I will answer Councilor DeYoung's question about how to enforce property maintenance codes now.

What does active property maintenance enforcement look like?  It isn't a matter of "busting" anyone for a single piece of litter that has blown onto one's property--or been dropped by a passer-by.  All property codes are enforced with a 10-day written warning first, followed up on after 10 days have passed.  People generally obey an order from police when it is easy to do so. 

Regarding litter, Everett, Washington started enforcement with businesses in the mid-eighties.  A friend of ours found work cleaning up business properties shortly before I left for Grants Pass.  

In Grants Pass, I would make that businesses and vacant buildings and lots for the first 6 months.  During that period, police should start educating residents when called to their properties, pointing out that, besides violating city code, property neglect invites trespass, vandalism and burglary.  The city will, of course, train its officers on what weeds to notice, and get the Courier to inform people about the new enforcement and education measures, telling residents that they are next.

Old litter, that which is dirty, faded or slug-eaten, is a particular sign that nobody cares about a property.  So are lots of dirty cobwebs on the house and shrubbery, and flowering and seeding weeds.  (More about weeds later) 

So, any sight of litter (old or new), cobwebs or seeding weeds should bring on an oral warning from police: the property neglect lecture.  Once the city starts enforcing on residences, five examples of litter or targetted weeds should bring on a written warning with the 10-day deadline. Police can pass written warnings on to Community Service for follow-up, and enforcement if necessary.  It's pretty easy to clean up 5 things in 10 minutes, much less 10 days, and those people would be sensitized pay attention to their property.  

Large trash, like the dilapidated couch for which I was issued a written warning a few months ago, should be issued a warning on sight as a matter of course, not by complaint.  I wouldn't do away with putting good stuff out for free with a sign, a charming and useful custom I've seen only in Grants Pass, but obviously broken furniture should not be tolerated.

"5.12.060 Weeds and Noxious Growth. No owner or person in charge of any property may permit weeds or other noxious vegetation to grow upon their property. It is the duty of an owner or person in charge of property to cut down or to destroy noxious weeds or other vegetation from becoming unsightly, or from maturing or going to seed, or from becoming a fire hazard. Accumulated waste vegetation shall be disposed of in a manner so as not to create a fire hazard or spread vegetation to other properties.
"A noxious weed is a weed that has been designated by an agricultural authority as one injurious to agriculture or horticulture, natural habitats or ecosystems, or humans or livestock. They grow aggressively and multiply quickly without natural controls. They displace desirable plants and contribute significantly to the spread of wildfire. The State of Oregon has developed a specific list of plants considered noxious vegetation. (Ord. 2901 §10,1960) (Ord. 15-5641, 2015)"  Grants Pass Municipal Code

What kind of weeds should draw the attention of police?  Our code forbids noxious, ugly and/or fire hazard weeds from being allowed to mature, produce seed, or become a fire hazard.  But I would not dream of trying to enforce against all such weeds at once.  Four kinds stand out for immediate enforcement: fire hazards; sticker seeds and star thistle; windblown seeds; and standing weeds in pavements.  

Fire hazards start with cheat grass, foxtails and heron's bill, all of which also produce sticker seeds.  These should be killed and removed before they make seed.  Other large annual and biennial weeds, when growing en masse, are tinder as well and must at least be cut to 2".  Owners of vacant lots should be encouraged to plant good perennial pasture grasses and clovers, which are far more fire resistant than annual weeds.  These can be cut to 6 inches.

After heron's bill, cheat and foxtails in the spring comes summertime puncture vine: AKA goat head, bull thorn, caltrops, and my favorite, tack vine.  We have a large lot full on M Street at Milhouse, and it drapes over the curb at 1080 M, a warehouse for rent, and on the north side of M just west of the Parkway.  It's all over town, mainly on vacant lots, gravel parking lots, and business properties.  Most residents don't tolerate them on their properties once they know about them, but there is one on the SW corner of I and Alder who does.  He's been told; he's been reported twice to David Reeves, who is the only person I am allowed to complain to; the plants are still draping over the corner as they flower and drop seeds, and smaller plants growing along Alder.

El Nino gave us a break this year, rotting the tack seeds where water stood on the ground, and causing a fungus in the flowers of some plants that slowed seed production in early summer.  

There are weevils that attack the stems and seeds, sold at goatheads.com.  That large lot on M would be a great host property for them to multiply and spread out all over town.  The city should ask the landowner to buy weevils instead of spraying twice a year like they've done for years.  But generally, people need to be told to cut them under the crown, sweep up any seeds that have dropped; and throw plants and seeds into the trash, not yard waste bins or Southern Oregon Compost.  Not that composting wouldn't kill them, but the seeds that get loose on the way to the compost piles could be a pain.

When I lived here in the '80s, star thistle was way out of town on neglected farms.  Now it is all over town and spreading.  It needs to be cut near ground level (not 2-6 inches) to kill it, preferably before its flowers open.  Anything that grows back should be cut again, shorter.  It is an annual; it will die when cut below the crown, where the branching starts.

Windblown seeds make it harder for the neighbors to garden and are unslightly.  People let lawns go dry and die to save on watering and mowing, but a dead or dormant lawn grows windblown weeds that grow tall flowers faster than the watered lawn grew grass.  (This is one reason why we need to reform water rates to encourage irrigation.)  Police should warn about flowering false dandelions, mares tails and wild lettuce, even groundsel in spring, each preferably before their seeds ripen.  This is why our code specifies that weeds must be cut or killed to prevent them "from becoming mature or going to seed."  

Weeds growing in cracks in pavement not only are unsightly, but are addressed separately in 
"5.12.050 Weed, Grass, Snow and Ice Removal  A. No owner or person in charge of property, improved or unimproved, abutting on a public sidewalk or right of way adjacent to a public sidewalk may permit:...C. Weeds or grass from growing or remaining on the sidewalk for a period longer than two weeks or consisting of a length greater than 6 inches."  

Start with the standing weeds.  The next year, include the prostrate ones.  Clean pavements are critical to making a town look good, and to keep our storm water clean.  Yes, the snow and ice portions should also be enforced in their season.

Speaking of which, I discovered a code I hadn't seen before, perhaps because it is not with the other Nuisances: 

"5.36.030 Debris on Streets, Sidewalks or any other Public Way
"A. It shall be prohibited to track, drag, drop, place, cause or allow to be deposited in any manner any mud, dirt, gravel, rock or other such debris upon the surface of any street, sidewalk, public way or into any part of the public storm and surface water system without authorization from the City of Grants Pass.
"B. No material shall be washed or flushed into any part of the storm and surface water system, and any such action shall be an additional violation."

I still don't see anything that requires people to clean leaves off the street in front of their properties., which would complete the job of protecting our river water under the code.

Sincerely yours,


Rycke