By ALLAN YARID
What happens when the building code is criminalized?
Readers may remember me from a story I wrote in July about how the City of Seneca was intimidating people – including me – into getting rid of their old properties. I spent time in jail because I couldn’t afford the $70,000 it would have cost to make the unneeded repairs and refurbishments they demanded.
Here’s what’s happening: City officials are imposing massive fines and requiring extensive and unnecessary repairs – repairs that city ordinances do not require – apparently in an effort to persuade people to relinquish their properties.
Currently my property is nothing but a concrete slab, since I was forced to demolish my building against my will in 2012. In August, I received a citation from the city’s code enforcement officer. City officials examined my property with a view to finding a violation, and not surprisingly they found one. The citation I received cites section 13-19: “It shall be unlawful for any person to maintain or to permit to be maintained any premises including … weeds, undergrowth, trash, garbage, offal, stagnant water, building materials, glass, wood,” etc.
“Stagnant water” – aha! There’s “stagnant water” on my slab!
But it’s not “stagnant water” like you sometimes see in an old contaminated pond or something like that. It’s just rainwater sitting on the slab after it rains. The sun hasn’t baked it off yet.
Well, my building is gone, but it’s still my property – even if city officials don’t act like it. Earlier this year, when they wanted to repair a water line, they cut a hole in my rock wall and tried to dig up my concrete slab to make repairs. When I asked how they would have repaired the water line if my building had still been there, all I got was, “Good question.”
Since then, they left the backhoe parked on my property, and the backhoe has done further damage to the concrete foundation. (Take a look at the picture above. The debris beside the backhoe, incidentally, wasn’t mine; it was left there by city employees.)
The real issue here is whether city officials can force property owners to make repairs the owners can’t afford to make. In my view, it’s just fine for city councilors to express a desire for the city to look a certain way. But the law doesn’t give them the right to harass, threaten, and imprison people who (a) can’t afford to make the desired repairs, and (b) don’t want to give their property to the city.
They’re codifying that authority right now, though. At a recent city council meeting, councilors passed a new ordinance saying that residents who are found to be in non-compliance with city building codes could be found guilty of a misdemeanor, and could be considered guilty of a new offense for every day the violation isn’t remedied.
But only police officers can charge someone with a crime. City planners and code officials don’t have that authority.
I was at that council meeting, and I asked how they could justify criminalizing the city code like that? I got no answer. And when a reporter with the Seneca Journal asked them about my remarks, they danced around it (the article, which isn’t online, ran on page A3 of the Journal on December 17, 2014). Ed Halbig, director of city planning, said this: “The language that’s in the ordinance is the language for all the building code and code enforcement ordinances. That basically comes out of the city’s code of ordinances that already has been passed that says what fines will be and what actions will be taken.”
Wait … huh?
Anyway, what’s happening in Seneca is scary. There is a bill now in the General Assembly – local officials like those in Seneca have been pushing it for some time – that would basically give local governments the right to take private property, give it to a court-appointed “receiver” who would demolish or refurbish it, and then either charge the owner for the repairs/demolition or sell it off.
Be afraid, folks. Be very afraid.
Allan Yarid was a member of the Seneca City Council from 1986 to 1988. Yarid’s property was called Sunray Record Shop until it closed in the mid 1990s.