Property clutter poses problems for county regulators

One man’s trash may be another’s treasure.

But what happens when a neighbor’s “treasures” become an eyesore or worse — a threat to public health and safety?

People make around 200 complaints every year to the Island County planning department for a variety of code violations, for things such as junked cars, garbage in the yard and improper storage of hazardous materials. The majority of complaints are resolved in a few months.

But a few properties — about eight a year countywide — receive multiple complaints, and the owners are unable or sometimes unwilling to do anything about it.

“It’s something we and every other jurisdiction struggle with,” said David Wechner, director for Island County Planning and Community Development.

In April a woman died in an early morning fire in the Dugualla Bay Heights neighborhood. County officials had a long history with the property, which was subject to multiple complaints for health department and county code violations.

An overloaded extension cord caused the fire but the accumulation of newspapers and other items in the home likely contributed to the speed and heat of the fire, officials said. Afterward, some people questioned why officials couldn’t have done something.

It’s difficult for county officials to do much about problem properties, Wechner said. The biggest challenge is money.

In almost every case, owners need to haul away junk cars, garbage, boats, hazardous materials and the like. That takes manpower, trucks and the dollars to pay for disposal fees. Often, the reason the property falls into bad condition to begin with is because the owner doesn’t have the means to take care of it.

People can become “overwhelmed by the effort required to clean up or even maintain the property,” Wechner said.

About half the time the owners don’t live on site or can’t be found.

“In a lot of cases, resources are zero,” said John Clark, who works on code compliance for Island County. “No vehicle, no money and no way to clean up their property.”

While the county has plenty of rules that address problems on properties, officials have little power to make people fix the problem. In extreme cases, county officials can clean up the property, place a lien on the land and refer the case to the prosecutor for possible civil or criminal action. That rarely happens.

The county usually gets stuck with the bill, or more accurately the taxpayer does.

Property owners often can’t pay and the money is rarely if ever recouped by placing a lien on the land, Wechner said. That’s because it may take years for the land to be sold, there may not be any equity left in the property and if there is, the county is one of the last in line to get it.

Instead, the county tries to work with the owner to solve the problem, not collect fines, Wechner said. That tends to yield better results.

In one instance, an Island County property accumulated thousands of dollars in fines. An elderly woman lives on the property and didn’t have the means to deal with the junk stacked around the house. Family members stepped in and spent tens of thousands of dollars helping her clean it up. The county dropped the lien on the property “because compliance had been achieved,” Wechner said.

Even when property owners can pay the fines or the property is cleaned, they often return to their old ways.

“And in many cases once compliance is gained and the pressure to comply is off, the tenant or owner returns to old habits,” Wechner said.

There are resources available to help indigent property owners including a half-off dump pass provided by the Opportunity Council that’s valid for a year and nonprofits such as Hearts and Hammers, which helps rehabilitate homes.

People have a legal right to live as they wish inside their homes. The health department only steps in when a property becomes a threat to the greater public health such as when improperly stored chemicals might seep into groundwater or someone is dumping garbage on their property, said Keith Higman, director of the Island County Public Health Department.

“If someone is hoarding items within their home, that’s not a public health issue,” he said.

The health department used to issue tickets with a monetary fine, much as a police officer would issue a parking ticket. But the fines at $75 weren’t enough, Higman said. People would often pay the fine and not fix the problem, or just not pay. People could also contest the tickets at district court.

Other cities clean up the property and send the owner a bill. If the bill isn’t paid, a lien is placed on the property. The problem with that approach is it requires a hefty start up fund to pay for the clean up, Higman said.

In Oak Harbor, Mayor Scott Dudley put a special emphasis on code enforcement a few years ago after the aftermath of the recession left a lot of foreclosed and abandoned homes. If an owner won’t cooperate, the city contracts with a business to clean up the property, then files a lien to recoup the cost.