Council seeking ‘nuisance’ opinions

Vote delayed on far-reaching law
Reporter Editor

Rockdale’s city council went to the brink of voting on the first reading of a measure which would represent the greatest exercise of city power ever over the everyday lives of city residents, then backed off for a month to gauge public input.

Meeting Monday at City Hall, the council considered an 18-page comprehensive “nuisance ordinance,” designed primarily to address health and safety issues, but also containing a number of specific details on actions deemed as nuisances.

Mayor Larry Jones, and other city officials, urged caution, noting that, under the ordinance as written, Rockdale residents could be liable for penalties for allowing one blade of grass, or weed, to surpass 10 inches in height, not “screening” dumpsters where they wouldn’t be visible from the street or not wrapping individual cookies in bake sales.

Penalties range up to $2,000 per-day, per complaint in a wide variety of categories.

COMPLAINTS—The council has been mulling such an ordinance for two years and Monday’s was the first discussion of a full document, prepared by City Attorney Michelle Lehmkuhl and crafted using several ordinances already in effect in other municipalities.

A public hearing, during which no one spoke, preceded the dis- cussion.

City Manager Kelvin Knauf said the ordinance is envisioned as “complaint driven,” that the city would not go out looking for violations, but would act when complaints were received.

“This is much stronger than the current ordinance,” Knauf said.

In June, 2011, the idea of a nuisance ordinance was first brought up to replace the city’s three-page grass and weed ordinance.

Lehmkuhl said the ordinance is viewed as “one tool in a tool kit to clean up the town” and “would have to be enforced equally and across-the-board.”

She said some of the measures might have unintended consequences and would need to be enforced with “some common sense.”

Lehmkuhl noted some provisions, such as the 10-inchhigh grass or weed stipulation, would make prosecutions easier in court.

“Currently it’s an average height of 10 inches required,” she said. “That can be hard to prove, but when it’s just one, not an average, it’s easier to show that there’s been a violation.”

NON-PROFITS—Jones said he was troubled by the potential unintended consequences.

He noted that non-profit organizations who conduct bake sales for fund-raising might be cited for not providing restrooms for customers or for not individually wrapping food items, under a section of the ordinance primarily designed to regulate food trailers.

“I think this (entire ordinance) could be a big problem,” Jones said. “ The first time you cite someone, they’re going to hop in their car and find every other place in town that has a situation like they’ve got or worse.”

“An awful lot of these are going to be judgment calls,” he said.

“Isn’t that what a policeman does every time he pulls over a vehicle for speeding?” council member Toby Johnson asked. “They use their judgment whether to give them a ticket or a warning.”

Counci l member Melody Dawson, who made the original motion to give the ordinance first reading approval, said the focus needed to be kept on cleaning up the city.

“At the community visioning meeting last May, attended by 111 persons, the appearance of the town kept coming up again and again in the discussion groups, one of which I chaired,” Dawson said.

‘PROPERTY RIGHTS’—Two city officials also expressed reservations about the comprehensive ordinance.

“Most of these ( health and safety) items are already covered under state law,” Police Chief Thomas Harris said.

Jones said the original idea was that a city ordinance would involve the city’s code enforcement officer, so the police department would not be the primary enforcement body.

Lon Williams, who is the city’s code enforcement officer, said he was concerned about individual property rights and the reception he would get in trying to enforce the ordinance.

“If I go to tell someone they’ve got to take down a dead tree, that’s on their own private property, I want Thomas (the police chief) to go with me,” Williams said.

Councilman Willie Phillips asked if the council “wanted to micromanage the city?”

“In principle, I know everybody wants to see the egregious health and safety issues cleaned up,” Jones said. “It’s just hard to get laws off the books once you’ve got them on.”

He pointed out that some sections were vague and open to interpretation, noting that one cites actions “injurious to the comfort of someone who resides in the city” and other sections address “unwholesome” conditions.

Jones said he wondered what happened to the list of 15 or so “slam dunk” violations he suggested be compiled as a start for discussion of a nuisance ordinance in June, 2011.

The list was apparently never put together, he noted.

INPUT—Several council members and visitors asked why the council was acting on a complex document that had not been presented to the public and was not listed on the city’s web site.

Dawson said some sections should be amended and suggested the dumpster screening section might be changed to include the words “best effort” to hide dumpsters from view, especially in the downtown area where many dumpsters are already in alleys.

She also asked for a public hearing in conjunction with the next city council meeting on April 8 and said she would make a motion to delay action until that time.

Jones ruled that was a separate motion from the one under discussion, so the council voted down the original motion to give first reading approval, then adopted Dawson’s second motion to postpone action until after receiving public input.

Both votes were unanimous.

Knauf said the full nuisance ordinance would be posted on the city’s website,

In other business, the council:

• Heard Collier Perry question the city’s non enforcement of a building setback deed restriction in the Linwood Acres subdivision which he said has forced him to file a lawsuit. Knauf said municipalities with zoning laws do not recognize deed restrictions, which are viewed as private contracts.

• Named James Earley as an alternate to the Building Standards Commission.

• Nominated Don Culp to the Milam County Appraisal District board.

• Appointed election officials.

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