News

Public to air views on ‘nuisance law’

Controversial ordinance is action item for city council here Monday
By MIKE BROWN
Reporter Editor

A proposed nuisance ordinance, which represents new territory for Rockdale municipal government, will get a public airing during a 5:30 p.m. city council session Monday at City Hall.

A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled during the session and it is on the agenda for possible action.

It was also on the March agenda, and a motion was made for its adoption, but the council backed off after the mayor, some council members and a couple of public officials expressed reservations.

‘NO’ IN POLL­— In the interim an unscientific on-line poll on The Reporter’s web site found 56 percent of those responding opposed adoption of the ordinance while 44 percent were in favor.

Fifty-four persons responded to the poll, an above average “turnout” for a Reporter on-line survey.

A public hearing was also held during the March session. No one spoke, but council visitors pointed out that, while the city had been discussing the concept of a nuisance ordinance for two years, the actual document in question had not been made public and was not yet on the city’s website.

The 18-page document was posted on the website, www.rockdalecityhall.com, within days of the March council session.

SPECIFIC—Proponents and opponents agree that the agenda, prepared by City Attorney Michelle Lehmkuhl at the direction of the council, is far-reaching and is an expansion of present municipal powers.

Proponents say it is needed as a tool to help clean up the city and make Rockdale safer and more attractive, both as a potential business site and home for new residents.

Opponents say safety concerns are already covered in state health codes, cite concerns about “unintended consequences” of the complaint-driven ordinance, and raise questions of property rights.

The ordinance spells out the definition of “nuisance,” and 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.

Each infraction could lead to a fine up to $2,000 and each day constitutes a separate infraction.

‘UNINTENDED’—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 devel- opment 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 quite specific definitions of terms which are used later in the document, ranging from junk to litter to “unwholesome items.”

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 generated much discussion at the March council meeting with Mayor Larry Jones questioning possible “unintended consequences” of proposed regulations.

Jones said his reading of the ordinance indicated someone could be cited for having one blade of grass, or weed, more than 10 inches high, that non-profit organizations might be cited unless individual cupcakes or plates of cookies are wrapped at bake sales and that businesses might have to “screen” trash dumpsters so they will not be visible from streets.

PRIORITY—Backers said such regulations are long overdue, point to similar, or more stringent, ordinances in many municipalities and say the ordinance only moves Rockdale along the scale toward governance in other towns.

Counci l member Melody Dawson, who made the original motion to adopt the ordinance— later amended to delay action until after the matter is aired in public—noted that she chaired a discussion group at last year’s “visioning” meeting attended by 111 persons.

“The number one priority at that session was improving the appearance of Rockdale,” she said.

Proponents also maintain the ordinance can be fine-tuned to alleviate concerns raised by Jones and others.

Dawson suggested the dumpster screening section could be amended to include the words “best effort” to hide dumpsters from view, especially in the downtown area where many dumpsters are already in alleys.

OFFICIALS—At the March session, Police Chief Thomas Harris and Code Enforcement Officer Lon Williams expressed some reservations about the ordinance.

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

The ordinance is envisioned as “complaint-driven,” triggered by specific complaints from the public.

Williams, whose job it would be to follow up on ordinance violation complaints from the public, said he was concerned about individual property rights and the reception he would get in trying to enforce the ordinance.

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

Jones said he understood the purpose of having a city ordinance was to involve the municipal code enforcement officer so the police department would not be the primary enforcement body.

LOCATION—As of press-time Wednesday, the location of Monday’s meeting was still scheduled to be City Hall.

Two weeks ago a city council session to hear a presentation by a tourism/promotion firm was held in the much larger Patterson Civic Center at Fair Park.


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