Nuisance ordinance mulled
Eighteen pages and several thousand words, many of them in legal lingo whose meanings and implications need an attorney’s scope and training to fully comprehend.
At its core, the ordinance is an attempt to turn the vague and general into something precise and specific.
It spells out the definition of “nuisance,” not an easy concept, empowers the city to control activities it defines as nuisances, specifies how the city will go about enforcing those controls and what penalties could be imposed for violating them.
The city has called for public input on the proposed ordinance, after several council members, led by Mayor Larry Jones, expressed reservations over its adoption.
Others supported the ordinance and called for its adoption as a tool needed to clean up the city and improve its quality of life and economy.
You can read the entire document at www.rockdalecityhall.com. Click on “draft nuisance ordinance.” There’s also online surveys to take on the city website and at The Reporter’s, www.rockdalereporter.com.
Here’s an analysis of the proposed ordinance.
DEFINITIONS—The ordinance begins with the statement “the accumulation of litter, solid waste, garbage, trash and vegetative overgrowth is injurious to the quality of life and the economic development of the community.”
It then proceeds to link such matters as essential to the community’s public health, safety and welfare and cites the authority of the city council to adopt such an ordinance pursuant to state law and empowered by Rockdale’s home rule status.
Next come 20 definitions, stating precisely what the following words or phrases mean with regard to the ordinance:
Brush, bulky item, bundles,
Nuisance ordinance: Big step toward cleaning up Rockdale or ‘government by tattling?”—Editorial, page 5A. earth and construction materials, garbage, hazardous waste, junk, litter, lot, motor vehicle, parkway, person, refuse, rubbish, sewage or wastewater, solid waste, solid waste service, trash, unwholesome matter, waste and weeds.
Some definitions are a few words. Those of more vague terms are much more comprehensive. “Junk,” for instance, is defined as:
“All worn out, worthless and discarded material, in general, including, but not limited to, wood products, scrap iron, scrap tin, scrap brass, scrap copper, scrap lead or scrap zinc and all other scrap metals and their alloys, and bones, rags, glass, paper, cordage, cloth, rubber, rope, tinfoil, bottles, old cotton, machinery, tools, construction materials, appliances, furniture, fixtures, utensils, boxes or crates, pipe or pipe fittings, automobile or airplane tires, dismantled motor vehicles, boats, boat trailers, or travel trailers or parts thereof, or other manufactured goods or odds and ends that are worn out, worthless, deteriorated, burned, obsolete, discarded material or other wastes, especially those that are unusable in their existing condition.”
‘PUBLIC NUISANCES’—The teeth of the ordinance follows, 11-plus pages of restrictions in the areas of littering, repairing motor vehicles, storage of materials outdoors, “offensive conditions on private property,” nuisance water regulations and general provisions.
The “offensive conditions on private property” section (Article IV) generated much discussion at the March council meeting with Mayor Jones questioning possible “unintended consequences” of proposed regulations.
That section sets out 20 health and sanitation “public nuisances,” outlining restrictions on food handling/preparation, trash and sewer issues, stagnant water, burning and littering.
“Prohibitive conduct” is then specified. Waste transportation and limitations on the height of grass and weeds get their own sections and water issues are covered in detail in almost two pages.
ENFORCEMENT—The ordinance authorizes the city’s code enforcement officer, or another designee (including city or county law enforcement), to inspect any property within the city limits, subject to obtaining the permission of the occupant or obtaining a warrant.
Authorization of a city official, as opposed to law enforcement, is an important distinction.
At the March meeting, Police Chief Thomas Harris said it was his opinion that health and safety issues in the ordinance are already covered under state law.
Mayor Jones said he believed the purpose of drafting a city ordinance was to involve the code enforcement officer so that law enforcement would not necessarily have to be the primary enforcers of a nuisance ordinance.
Several times the ordinance was referred to as “complaint driven,” meaning investigations and actions would be primarily triggered by complaints from citizens, not necessarily from officials going out and looking for violations.
The ordinance enforcement section empowers the city to “abate” a nuisance without notice to the owner if an “immediate danger” exists and forward a notice of the abatement within seven days.
There are provisions for the city recovering the cost of such abatements from owners.
Costs, plus 10 percent interest per year, may be added to utility bills for unpaid assessments and a procedure for affixing liens is outlined.
Penalties for violation of the ordinance include a fine of up to $2,000 per offense, per day. Each day constitutes a separate offense.
BOTTOM LINE—The proposed ordinance represents a change in Rockdale ordinances and is, unarguably, a measure which would represent the greatest exercise of municipal power yet by the city over the day-to-day lives of its citizens.
Its backers say that such a measure is long overdue, that citizens’ safety, and the town’s aesthetics, and potential to attract new businesses and new residents, are threatened by the every-day actions of some of its residents.
They point out similar ordinances are already in effect in other municipalities and that the one proposed here is not as severe as other municipalities, that the proposed ordinance moves Rockdale along the scale toward other towns’ governance.
Those expressing reservations raise the issue of property rights and cite concerns over the possibility of the ordinance becoming an enforcement nightmare.
They question whether aggressive enforcement might result in such currently unintended actions as going after non-profit organizations who don’t wrap or cover cookies in bake sales, or land owners who have one blade of grass or weeds more than 10 inches high.
FULL NAME—Here is the ordinance’s full, and legal, title:
An ordinance of the city of Rockdale, Texas, providing definitions; declaring littering and the accumulation of stagnant water, carrion, filth, weeds and other impure or unwholesome matters to be unlawful; prohibiting the storage of airtight containers outside certain structures to be unlawful; declaring specified conditions to be a nuisance; providing for the abatement of nuisances; declaring certain discharges of sewage and the storage of garbage, wastes or unwholesome matter in a matter to cause odors, obnoxious, unhealthy or unwholesome conditions to be a violation; providing for the filing of liens to secure cost; providing for penalties; and providing for related matters.