City council approves adding chronic nuisance chapter to municipal code

City councilmembers gathered via Zoom for their Feb. 7 regular business meeting.

The Mountlake Terrace City Council at its Feb. 7 regular business meeting unanimously approved adopting a chronic nuisance chapter ordinance in the municipal code, which can help the city to address properties that have repeated patterns of onsite criminal activity along with reported nuisance violations.

It was noted that properties with repeated nuisances and ongoing patterns of criminal activity onsite can create safety issues for the surrounding neighborhoods and community. However, provisions previously in the municipal code for addressing those nuisances did not provide the city with adequate tools for abating such “chronic nuisance” properties. The chapter ordinance approved Monday night is intended to remedy repeated nuisance activities that occur or exist on properties within Mountlake Terrace by providing it with a process for enforcement and abatement.

Under the new ordinance, a chronic nuisance property is defined as:

– Any property which, upon a request for execution of a search warrant, has been the subject of a determination by a court two or more times within a 12-month period that probable cause exists that illegal possession, manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance or related offenses, as defined in Washington state law, has occurred on the property.

– Any abandoned property where nuisance activity exists.

– A property for which four or more nuisance activities exist or have occurred on the property during any 90-day period, or eight or more nuisance activities exist or have occurred on the property during any 365-day period.

Drug-related offenses, gang-related activity, criminal mischief, possession of stolen property offenses, disorderly conduct, animal cruelty, indecent exposure and prostitution offenses, firearm and dangerous weapon offenses, and warrant arrests are among the nuisance activities included in the code’s chapter. However, multiple such activities contained in a single incident report from law enforcement are not counted as separate nuisance activities. And any law enforcement response generated by calls for service to aid victims on the property shall not be counted as nuisance activity.

Once a property is determined to be a chronic nuisance, a code enforcement officer will notify the owner and/or person in charge of the property in writing that the property is being declared as such. That person must then respond to the city within 10 days of the notice being served in order to create an agreed-upon plan of action for abatement along with a date and time for when those voluntary corrective actions must be completed.

If the owner and/or person in charge of the property fails to respond to the notice in a timely manner, fails to enter into an abatement agreement, or if the terms of the voluntary agreement are not met, then the city can seek to impose penalties, take corrective measures to abate the nuisance and recover its costs and expenses incurred while doing so.

Penalties imposed can include a fine of up to $100 per day against the owner and/or persons in charge of the property until it is confirmed by an enforcement official that the location is no longer a chronic nuisance property. In addition, the owner and/or person in charge is subject to the suspension or revocation of a business or other such license at the property. The property can even be ordered closed and then secured against all unauthorized access for a period of up to one year. Any financial penalty and/or costs of abatement awarded to the City of Mountlake Terrace may be filed as a lien on the property.

City Attorney Hillary Evans presents the chronic nuisance chapter ordinance that was ultimately approved.

City Attorney Hillary Evans said the new chapter in the code was crafted based on the city council’s past direction to incentivize voluntary cooperation from property owners towards mitigation efforts rather than seeking harsh punitive measures. She noted that a fine of $100 per day for noncompliance is the lowest among cities in the area.

“This is a very sort of middle-of-the-road approach to chronic nuisance and it’s an extreme provision for an extreme situation – this is not your typical run-of-the-mill nuisance code,” Evans added. “This is very much just a standalone chronic nuisance code,” which can address specific situations that involve repeated criminal activities taking place on properties.

She said that several properties in Mountlake Terrace could possibly qualify as nuisances under the approved ordinance, but any problems documented in the past would not be held against those locations moving forward.

Some on the council expressed concern that business owners, despite their best efforts to curtail criminal activities onsite, might possibly be unfairly impacted by people regularly conducting illicit activities on parts of their properties – such as in parking lots.

Councilmember Laura Sonmore said she would like for staff to present a report one year after the chronic nuisance property chapter has been implemented to help determine its effectiveness, local impacts and whether or not the city council might want to revisit some of its provisions.

In other business, the council unanimously approved several other items it discussed at last week’s work/study session, including the appointment of five members to the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee for 2022. They include Councilmember Sonmore, who serves as chair of the committee, Studio 6 Hotel General Manager Laura Peckinpaugh, Studio 6 Hotel Operations Manager Sharaine Smith, Arts of the Terrace member Bonnie Mercer and Nile Shrine member Dale Newman.

Under state law, revenues from the city’s 2% tax on hotel and motel rentals must be used for marketing or operation of special events and festivals designed to attract tourists. They may also support the operations of tourism-related facilities owned or operated by nonprofit organizations. Programs or events supported should have the potential to increase overnight visits locally and/or create a positive economic impact.

Studio 6 is Mountlake Terrace’s only hotel or motel and it generates approximately $25,000 in such tax revenues each year. Those funds have been allocated to various events and services in the past including the Tour de Terrace festival, the 3rd of July Fireworks event and also the Arts of the Terrace Juried Art Show. The advisory committee typically meets once or twice per year to review the funding applications received and then make its final recommendations to the city council.

The council agreed to have the City of Mountlake Terrace sign on to a letter endorsing changes to the county’s urban tree canopy policy. The letter, which was drafted by the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County, recommends that the county adopt the proposed policy as a new section of the general policy plan’s natural environment chapter during the process for the 2024 update to Snohomish County’s growth management act comprehensive plan.

It advocated for seeking to prioritize and maintain an urban tree canopy throughout the county, while also accommodating projected population growth, and maximizing housing affordability and economic development. The letter notes that “finding a balance is possible.” Several councilmembers said they felt it is an important issue to address that will require both local and regional efforts. They also appreciated that the proposal seeks to strike a balance between environmental, housing and economic development needs in the area.

Several interlocal agreements on the council’s consent calendar were approved including:

–  A two-year extension to the existing agreement with the Edmonds Wastewater Treatment Plant. The extension will allow staff of the four jurisdictions that are part of the interlocal agreement — which include Mountlake Terrace, Edmonds, Shoreline and the Olympic View Water and Sewer District — more time to evaluate and fully understand how Washington state’s new wastewater treatment criteria will impact the plant’s operations before finalizing a methodology for cost allocations.

– An update of the mutual aid interlocal agreement with Snohomish County for road and street services. When feasible and financially beneficial, the City of Mountlake Terrace contracts with the county to carry out various street maintenance projects that may require specialized equipment, expertise or labor resources that the city does not have. The new agreement, which runs through 2026, does not obligate either the city or county to perform work, and any work potentially accepted must include an associated cost estimate based on actual costs such as wages and an overhead factor.

– A scope of work agreement for 2022 with the Snohomish Conservation District for environmental education and public outreach. Mountlake Terrace has partnered with the conservation district for several years in order to help provide a stormwater pollution prevention curriculum in local elementary and middle schools. Last year, the outreach was expanded to include two natural yard and garden care webinars, the development of a youth curriculum specific to Lake Ballinger, and an “Orca Recovery Day” event. Under the agreement, the conservation district matches city funding at 25 percent for such public education and outreach efforts to promote clean water.

City Manager Scott Hugill briefs the council during his city manager comments portion of Monday night’s meeting.

City Manager Scott Hugill reported that the vendor Mountlake Terrace contracts with for providing its water utility billing and payment services online had recently made a clerical error that resulted in many households receiving a bill amount that was doubled what they actually owed. He noted the city has been actively working to identify which accounts were affected, reversing any late fees levied due to the mistake and urged anyone who hadn’t already received an adjustment to those fees that they contact the city.  In addition, staff have been reaching out to those who may have already made payment plan arrangements for the incorrect billing amount.

Hugill also informed the council that the City of Mountlake Terrace had once again been named as a recipient of the “Tree City USA” designation for its commitment to effective urban forest management. The Tree City USA program is sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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