The Mountlake Terrace City Council at its Oct. 4 business meeting began discussing ideas for improving the city’s code enforcement process.
City Manager Scott Hugill told the council that code enforcement “has to do essentially with anything you can see from the street,” such as yards. Therefore, even when the city gets nuisance complaints from neighbors about conditions on a property, unless those potential violations are visible from the right of way or its owner grants access to back areas of the property there is little code enforcement officers can do. Code compliance, on the other hand, involves a component of voluntary consent.
“Code enforcement in its strictest terms is you’re given a certain number of days to correct the nuisance and then if you don’t you’re issued a financial penalty,” Hugill added. “If you don’t comply with that the city has the opportunity to go to superior court and ask a judge to provide a warrant for the city to go on the property and remove the nuisance. So code compliance is the voluntary agreement process in our code.”
The most recent update to the city’s nuisance code was made in 2001 concerning debris in front yards, junk vehicles and overgrown vegetation. Hugill noted at that time, the changes made were primarily concerned with cleaning up neighborhoods by getting cars off of front yards. It also introduced and placed an emphasis on the code’s voluntary compliance agreement.
Currently, the process starts with voluntary compliance after a code enforcement officer contacts a property’s resident or owner about correcting a nuisance within an agreed-upon timeframe. A significant reason for the discretion involved is because “nuisance violations tend to be a human issue,” Hugill said. “It’s not about the junk vehicle in the front yard, it’s about getting the person that owns that junk vehicle to change their behavior, to get rid of it, pay for it, do something different.” That varies by resident due to a variety of issues that can lead to delays including financial, medical, and mental health reasons.
If the nuisance is not corrected within the agreed-upon time frame, then the city has the ability to issue a civil infraction. The 2001 update’s intention was for nuisance appeals under the civil infraction process to go before the city’s hearing examiner rather than to district court. “That way it stayed somewhat in-house so we could maintain oversight of that process” of determining compliance and “the process, the timeline was well defined,” he noted.
The code also included a misdemeanor criminal charge component that is filed with the district court, “and once it goes to South District Court it’s out of our hands,” Hugill said. The court then determines what will happen next and the timeline for those actions. He added, “Oftentimes what can happen is that it just gets lost in that chasm.”
For example, Hugill said that a property owner who refused to clean up their property a year ago was issued a misdemeanor, didn’t show up for court and had a warrant issued for their arrest, subsequently spent some time in jail and to date still haven’t cleaned up the property.
The city can seek abatement by going to superior court and asking a judge to sign a warrant allowing the city to clean up a property. But to get a warrant signed, it must show that there was ample due process involved.
Current issues with the code enforcement process include:
-Timeliness, since the voluntary compliance agreements don’t have a standard timeframe used. Hugill noted, however, that is preferable to ensure flexibility exists for working with residents who are willing to address nuisances but may need more time to do so for various reasons.
-Civil penalties as currently set up are “intended to be a low-cost solution to get their attention to clean up their property,” he said. “Our problem is our civil penalty is so low that it really doesn’t have any teeth to it.” Hugill added that the penalty is approximately $60 and “is not getting people to comply.”
-The misdemeanor citation process ends up removed from the city, can take a long time to play out in district court, and judges may extend the time allotted for compliance, which further delays correction of nuisances.
-If the city goes in to clean up a property, the abatement process “can be very expensive – several thousands of dollars,” Hugill said, and in the past the city has lacked the resources for doing so. However, abatement “is a tool that is a good investment not only in neighborhood pride but also in economic development,” he added. “We want our neighborhoods to look good so that people coming to Mountlake Terrace see it as an opportunity and that’s where abatement comes in.”
-Enforcement of the entire municipal code regarding nuisances is also complicated because there are 10 different chapters in the city’s code that reference them in a variety of contexts ranging from the conduct of business to home occupations, noise and sound, tree management, solid waste, wastewater, permit procedures, and off-street parking. Hugill said, “Throughout the code there are nuisance issues, but code enforcement is tasked with addressing one or two of these chapters and we don’t have the resources in Community and Economic Development to pursue the others,” such as nuisance buildings, and zoning and land use violations.
City Attorney Hillary Evans provided the council with recommendations to consider for updating the process. “The current process works something like this: We give the property owner as much time as they need to voluntarily comply, then we end up in South District Court where there’s a major slowdown.” That’s partially due to COVID-19 but also because it’s a different process that can involve assigning public defenders, judges’ allowing additional time for the problem to rectified and then ultimately a misdemeanor infraction, “which is not at all resolving the problem,” Evans said. “And while it’s giving the homeowner a lot of time, it’s not serving the city very well.”
She recommended the city embrace a process that would generally allow property owners 60 days from being contacted about a nuisance until voluntary compliance is expected to be completed. After that, code enforcement officers would reinspect the property and issue a notice and order providing the details of specific code violations, the actions necessary to come into compliance, timelines for permits and other requirements, along with identifying all of the people responsible for compliance including owners and/or tenants.
The appeal period allotted for nuisance orders would be 15 days. If those orders are not appealed to the city’s hearing examiner within that time, they would then be found in violation whereupon, “we will take it to superior court where we can quickly get a warrant of abatement,” authorizing the city to mitigate the nuisances, Evans said.
Under its code, the city would also be able to recuperate those abatement costs. Evans noted that recuperation of those expenses typically comes in the form of a lien or a judgment recorded against the property, so frequently the city will only recover those expenses when the property changes hands.
“We believe that superior court will be much more efficient because they don’t have the backlogs that municipal court has, we’re not asking for the misdemeanor — this isn’t against the person this is against the property,” Evans said. “We don’t need to get somebody a criminal record we just want the darn thing cleaned up.”
She also noted that the city code currently doesn’t have a good mechanism for fines. It allows for adopting fines but then fails to do so and “what you have essentially is a four-day civil violation and then it caps it at the misdemeanor at $1,000.”
Evans added that while such a sum could be considered reasonable, “it’s not a very good deterrent when you’re talking about the cost to abate a lot of these properties.” She said that many of the cities she works with throughout the region have daily penalties starting at $150-$250 and some can go as high as $500 for each violation.
“What we’re lacking here is the stick,” Evans told the council. “We’re going to use the carrot, we’ve been using the carrot but when that doesn’t work we need the stick and the threat of real financial penalties is something I think we need to consider.”
Recommended code changes that would help streamline the process included two options. An “easy way” to do so would create a daily penalty that is still considered to be a reasonable amount and is capped, but also extends that cap past the current time period of four days.
Additionally, a nuisance should be defined by the city as a violation of any municipal code provision, permit or approval. Doing so would be a more efficient model and allow code enforcement officers as they currently exist to “really enforce the entire code,” because nuisance properties often present a variety of issues scattered throughout the city’s code Evans said.
The “hard way” of making recommended code changes would be for the city to repeal and replace all of the various code enforcements currently mentioned throughout ten chapters in the municipal code into one consolidated chapter addressing the process. Doing so would make for a much cleaner and easier to understand process moving forward Evans said, “It’s better if we have one officer enforcing with one set of rules because then everybody knows what to expect and we all know how to get the compliance to occur.”
Several of the council members said they were glad to be engaging in discussions about code changes and felt the recommendations were moving in the right direction.
“I like the recommendations of embrace the process of 60 days for voluntary (compliance),” along with the 15-day timeline for appeals to be filed and then subsequently going to superior court, Mayor Pro Tem Doug McCardle said. He said he believed it would help address frustrations expressed by residents, code enforcement officers and city officials with how long the process of remedying nuisance properties can currently take.
McCardle also noted that even though it may be more difficult in the short term, he felt adopting the recommendation to consolidate all of the code enforcements into one comprehensive chapter would be more beneficial for everyone in the long run.
Speaking to frustrations with how long the current process can take to address nuisance properties, Mountlake Terrace Police Commander Pat Lowe said: “Our code enforcement officers want the city cleaned up just as much as you all do and the community does.” The police department is “very onboard with some of these new changes to help us have a little bit of teeth in making these changes happen more quickly,” he added.
Several councilmembers recently went on private tours with a resident who is concerned about code enforcement and pointed out violations of various natures throughout the city. They expressed individually that the tour was eye-opening and helped them realize the many types of code violations people including themselves may commonly pass by and not even realize exist.
Councilmember Bryan Wahl said he appreciated the recommended changes and he would also like to explore ways to potentially leverage abatement costs if the city has to clean up the property rather than misdemeanor infractions which can delay the process. “We’re not trying to send people to jail, all we really want is for the property to get cleaned up,” he noted.
Wahl said he also felt that it would also be helpful to talk about ways for making voluntary compliance and therefore enforcement easier through communications efforts, such as educating and providing property owners with a list of available resources. He even mentioned the possibility of finding community volunteers to pitch in when people are unable to remedy nuisance issues themselves due to various physical and/or financial reasons which may be beyond their control.
The council unanimously approved a bevy of measures on its consent calendar including:
– A grant funding agreement between the city and the Washington State Department of Commerce (DOC) will provide $807,520 to help with construction costs of the Ballinger Park and Hall Creek restoration project.
– An on-call work contract of more than $38,000 with Murraysmith, Inc. for developing an emergency response plan document that must be completed and submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the end of the year.
– An on-call work order costing nearly $124,000 for RH2 Engineering, Inc. to provide the city with support in processing development applications that must be reviewed by the public works department’s engineering division.
– A supplemental agreement with KPG, the engineering design firm working on the city’s Main Street Revitalization Project, for property and right-of-way acquisition services at a cost of up to $478,137.
– Authorizing a small works contract of slightly more than $64,600 with C.R. Contracting, LLC for repairing sections of damaged pavement and markings.
In other business, the city council approved amending municipal codes concerning council voting and notification posting requirements.
City staff had recommended the code regarding the posting of Mountlake Terrace advisory boards and commissions information be updated. The code lists four required posting sites for city council ordinances and notices which include City Hall, the Mountlake Terrace Library, Recreation Pavilion and Post Office. Information about Mountlake Terrace board and commission meetings was also required to be posted at all of those locations.
However, the city has traditionally only posted the boards and commissions information about agendas and legal notices at the meeting site and online – rather than at the four locations identified in city code. Therefore, staff recommended that section of the code regarding notifications be amended to align its language with the actual practices for posting information concerning boards and commissions.
Other code changes approved Monday night clarified the council’s own internal processes related to its members abstaining from a vote and also passing when called on to vote.
— By Nathan Blackwell