Westminster city officials introduced an ordinance last night that is designed to foster a cooperative solution to residential housing problems.
The "Disorderly House Nuisance" proposal deals exclusively with residences where two or more criminal offenses, property maintenance and zoning violations occur within a year. Other violations that would cause a house to be declared disorderly run the gamut from alcohol and noise complaints to animal control and safety issues.
Under the proposal, the property's owner - or the offending occupant - would be required to meet with city officials and create a binding agreement specifically tailored to make the residence comply with the city's code. The city would only take legal action if the landlord or tenant fails to comply with the agreement.
"This fills a gap that exists in terms of quality of life because we have the heavy hammer of the nuisance abatement law under the state real property code," said Councilman Thomas K. Ferguson. "This ordinance is a notch down. It provides the city with a tool to bring parties to the table for negotiation."
Currently, Westminster's code enforcement officer issues warnings and citations related to property maintenance violations. Last year, Scott Jeznach wrote 293 warnings to residents - from minor infractions such as overgrown grass to major structural problems. He said he only issues citations if he hasn't heard back from the offenders in a month. Last year, he issued 85 citations. In 2001, the first year the code was established, Jeznach wrote 346 warnings and issued 51 citations.
The proposed ordinance, he said, is "a non-judicial way of holding property owners' feet to the fire."
He said that the current system allows for problems to continue for up to four months after the offense is noted. If after repeated warnings and citations the offense has not been corrected, property owners are given court dates. In these cases, the violations are brought before a Carroll County District Court judge.
"They are looking at the case in hand and not in the context of reoccurring problems," Jeznach said. "What we're hoping to do with this is make it more administrative in nature, with the owner responding directly to the administrative body and putting the onus on them to tell us how they intend to fix the situation, and holding them to it." But Ferguson added that the proposal is also aimed at rental properties, so that a tenant is just as likely to be called to account as the owner of the property.
Westminster landlords still feel they are being unfairly blamed for actions they say they can't control.
"There are so many things that do not rise up to qualify for an eviction that we could still be held liable to," said Russ "Rusty" Arenz II, president of the Carroll County Landlords Association and manager of 11 properties in Westminster.
He also questioned a provision of the proposed ordinance that would rely on unspecified "reliable information" to initiate prosecution against a property - a phrase that could be used by those with a grudge against a property owner or tenant.
Council President Damian L. Halstad said the ordinance would target whoever is responsible for the problems and bring them to the table to discuss solutions.
"It certainly covers most of the nuisances we could foresee, but we've also put in a structure to move heaven and earth before we go to court," Halstad said.
The code covers minimum requirements and standards for fire safety, light, sanitation, space, heating and other issues in rental properties. It allows the city to crack down on unsightly and unsafe conditions, including abandoned vehicles in yards and driveways, overgrown grass and weeds in yards, and run-down buildings.
Two years ago, the city expanded its property maintenance code to include owner-occupied buildings and required registration of all rental properties.
Some municipalities in Carroll have not embraced legislation designed to curtail nuisance problems. Last month, Union Bridge officials rejected a proposal that would have fined property owners or occupants for excessive police calls.