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Woodburn talks code enforcement

Efforts aim to improve the compliance locally; new ordinance could target lawn parking


The role of code enforcement in Woodburn was taken up during the City Council’s most recent meeting, April 14.

Police Chief Scott Russell was asked to give a presentation on the division, which now falls under the purview of the Woodburn Police Department, after some residents voiced concerns about lawn parking and code enforcement in general.

Russell’s presentation and questions by the council afterward covered the two-person department’s regular responsibilities and challenges, as well as possible avenues for improvement.

Though code enforcement falls under Woodburn police, code enforcement officers are not sworn law enforcement. They are tasked with enforcing applicable city police and planning codes (as are police officers), but they are not issued a badge or firearm and cannot respond to crimes as defined by state or federal law.

In addition to their code enforcement duties, Russell said code enforcement officers also assist in animal control, directing traffic and other matters that don’t require a sworn officer.

“So if there’s something that needs to be picked up out of the roadway, and we don’t need a badge and a gun to go do it, they can do that, and keep our officers on the street or responding to calls,” Russell said. “They have that sort of dual role.”

The chief also presented statistics related to code enforcement. The division processed 1,446 ordinance violations last year, which was roughly on par with 2012, which saw 1,553 violations. Both by: TYLER FRANCKE - Woodburn code enforcement officer Nick Weathermon documents a spat of graffiti and vandalism that broke out at The Estates Golf & Country Club earlier this month.were down from 2011, in which 1,744 violations were recorded by the police department.

Animal complaints are, by far, the primary reason residents call code enforcement, far outpacing the other categories.

“Our No. 1 issue is animals, and it continues to be,” he said. “Vicious dogs, especially, or dogs at large are a huge problem and safety concern in the city, for people, for other animals, for people walking their animals and for vehicular traffic as well.”

Miscellaneous violations, including sign issues and parking, are the next-highest call type, with tall grass coming in third. Graffiti incidents are also statistically significant, with 86 incidents in 2013 and 48 this year already.

Depending on how the relevant ordinance is worded specifically, Russell said most code enforcement violations entail a notice or warning to the homeowner and a time frame in which the violation can be removed. If the issue is not corrected, officers may then issue a citation (a summons to appear in municipal court) or begin abatement, or both.

“They’re not mutually exclusive,” Russell said. “You can do both, and oftentimes, we do.”

Abatement is a process by which Woodburn staff members themselves correct the issue — trimming the grass or removing graffiti, for example — with the city fronting the initial costs.

Bills for the abatement are assessed to the homeowners afterward, but if these bills are not paid, they become liens against the property, which are often not reimbursed until and unless the parcel is sold.

Russell said the department’s annual abatement budget is relatively small — about $5,500 — roughly half of which is usually expended on tall grass alone. This limited funding is one of the reasons code enforcement officers place such a high premium on voluntary compliance, rather than citations and abatement.

“We see it as in the public interest to try and get those properties into voluntary compliance whenever we can, and not spend public money doing abatements, except for the ones that we really have to,” Russell said.

Councilor Frank Lonergan said he’d like to see more information on what impact a budget increase could have on code enforcement.

“As we’re going to go into budget hearings pretty soon, I’d like to know what I could get,” he said. “If we were to give you another $10,000, $20,000 to make Woodburn a more livable city, what are we going to get out of that?”

Other councilors, like Jim Cox, expressed a possible desire to see more emphasis placed on follow-through and the citation process. According to Russell, 90 percent of violations are currently addressed through voluntary compliance or abatement, with only 10 percent resulting in citations.

“I think that education is an important component, but I don’t think that educating or informing the public, or requesting voluntary compliance should be carried very darn far,” Cox said. “I think the notices should be given, and they should be followed. People should not be able to get away with some excuse.”

The city will be initiating a “Good Neighbor” campaign this spring with police and code enforcement officers. The officers will be talking with residents in each of the three police districts on specified days, discussing local ordinances as they pertain to parking, grass, signs and other issues.

The three campaign days will be June 7, 14 and 21. For more information, visit ci.woodburn.or.us.

New ordinance could target lawn parking

In the coming weeks, the Woodburn City Council may be considering significant revisions and additions to the city’s nuisance ordinances, especially as they pertain to residential parking and the parking of vehicles on lawns.

The issue of residents parking cars on their lawns — which is a violation of the Woodburn Development Ordinance — was first pressed months ago by the Historic Woodburn Neighborhoods Association.

Merri Berlin, co-chairwoman of the association, said city staff have been cooperative in addressing her group’s concerns. Their efforts include the “Good Neighbor” campaign this spring and a presentation on the matter by Police Chief Scott Russell during last week’s council meeting.

Russell said that his officers and code-enforcement personnel have sought voluntary compliance on the lawn-parking policy through the development regulations, but a separate ordinance addressing the matter would be preferable.

If a resident refuses to comply with the policy, then the development code would be more difficult to enforce, Russell said. This is because an older property cannot legally be held to the standards for new development if it was in compliance with the standards when it was built.

“That makes it a challenge to apply in this situation,” Russell said. “We’ve tried to get people to comply with the (development ordinance), but if we go to court, it would be hard to enforce since we have no way of showing they weren’t in compliance with the old standards.”

The development code is also far more difficult to amend than a nuisance, City Attorney Bob Shields pointed out.

“It can take up to half a year to change the development code,” he said. “A nuisance ordinance can be amended much more quickly.”

Nuisance ordinances generally address unreasonable uses of property that can result in injury to the public, such as unsafe conditions or noxious weeds. However, Shields said they can also address certain aesthetic issues, and he has done research on other cities that have used “aesthetic nuisance” ordinances to prohibit parking on lawns.

In contrast to other nuisances, parking ordinances generally call for immediate citations, rather than a warning and a window of time in which a property owner can restore compliance.

“I think the parking ordinance would have to follow a very different process,” Russell said. “We’re probably talking about an instant citation. The challenge is that if they move the car, it’s gone.”

However, this kind of blanket policy could also be expensive for the city. As it stands now, a routine inspection for lawn parking could identify more than 100 violations, Russell said.

“That would mean 100 cases in court, potentially,” he said. “Who knows what percentage of those might be contested. So there is some expense there that council should be aware of.”

A citywide restriction on lawn parking may also be difficult to implement in older neighborhoods, where parking space is more limited.

Following Russell’s presentation last week, several council members expressed interest in entertaining an aesthetics nuisance ordinance, including Councilor Frank Lonergan, who said he’d be “strongly in favor” of such a measure.

But not everyone seemed as keen on the idea.

“I don’t think we should spend any more staff time researching this,” Councilor Eric Morris said. “We should work on the ordinances we have.”

Morris went on to say he would prefer that police continue to concentrate primarily on more serious crimes, like break-ins and robberies.

“I think that’s where we need to focus our heavy hitters.”




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