Even though Denton’s code enforcement philosophy shifted six years ago — after two community studies and several years of public work on a controversial property maintenance code — the change from reactive to proactive work was still news to at least some on the City Council this week.
The City Council took time during its annual planning retreat Monday to hear more about the department’s work in general and its enforcement of the sign ordinance in particular.
Mayor Mark Burroughs told the council that he asked that the matter be on the agenda after hearing complaints and concerns from the community. Some residents have complained to council members that the department has become “nit-picky.”
The philosophical shift meant that, instead of waiting by the phone for complaints, officers are actively working cases both small and large, according to Lancine Bentley, code enforcement’s division manager.
The shift brings the department in line with others using “best practices” in code enforcement and decreases the selective enforcement inherent in simply waiting for complaints, Bentley said.
But it also has greatly increased the city’s caseload.
Six years ago, the department worked about 3,000 cases. In 2012, the department worked more than 14,000 cases, about 98 percent of which were eventually abated.
The city still responds to complaints, but people don’t always call in their concerns, Bentley said.
For example, in early 2011, the department began working one of its largest cases. It took more than 14 months to clean up a 7-acre property with several substandard structures, Bentley said.
About 20,000 tires also had been dumped there. The 94-year-old owner of the property was frail and living in Dallas, so the neighbors never complained. But after the property was cleaned up, neighbors told city workers they were grateful, including one neighbor who was hopeful her property would finally sell.
Some areas of town complain less than would be expected, given the problems, Bentley told the council.
“Some of the residents are older, some might be afraid of being found out and some are afraid of retaliation,” Bentley said.
The philosophical shift helped the city deal more effectively with dangerous buildings, she said. From 1997 to 2007, the city demolished 46 buildings. From 2008 to the present, the city demolished 276 buildings, and oversaw the rehabilitation of 71 more, for $142,000, just $10,000 more than the 10 years before.
Proactive enforcement of health and safety issues didn’t concern Burroughs, but the many notices for aesthetic matters did, he said.
The department recently sent notices to more than 50 properties to clear shrubbery and other items along a sidewalk, Bentley said.
She knew that case had irked many people, some of whom complained to council members, but the department couldn’t ignore the person’s complaint. The complainant is blind and couldn’t use the sidewalk safely, she said.
Aesthetic improvements can also help trigger revitalization of neighborhoods otherwise in decline, Bentley said.
She pointed to Bolivar Street as one example where the city began enforcing minimum building standards, which for many homes meant gravel driveways needed to be improved.
Then, for some, that led to other beautification and improvement projects.
“Bolivar Street is one example where they weren’t too excited when they got our notices,” Bentley said. “But now they are doing more. People get inspired and clean up the place.”
In an interview this week, Peggy Capps, who owns a home in the Oak-Hickory Historic District with a gravel driveway, questioned whether requiring people to invest in 4 inches of gravel, and wood or pavestone edging on their driveways, isn’t going overboard.
“On Bolivar Street, now there is gravel on the sidewalks and on the street,” Capps said. “We have far more pressing problems — in my opinion, public safety is more important than gravel drives.”
The council didn’t direct the department to abandon its proactive approach, but did ask Bentley to look more closely at the way it approached aesthetic issues and at the warning notices, to see whether those could be more customer-friendly.
Council members also encouraged the city staff to consider whether to change the name of the department from Code Enforcement to Code Compliance.
And Burroughs encouraged the department to focus on outcomes, not the volume of citations.
The council was less concerned with the city’s sign ordinance, which they learned this week has some conflicting passages that make enforcement difficult.
Planning director Brian Lockley asked whether the city should include rewriting that ordinance as part of the work being done to update the city’s development code, but the council suggested Bentley and Lockley bring forward some interim rewrites to a future meeting instead.
Council member Jim Engelbrecht, a longtime resident, said Denton has a split public standard that may make it difficult to resolve aesthetic issues in the sign ordinance or elsewhere in the property maintenance code.
“Some think we should allow anything anywhere,” Engelbrecht said. “And some want Hilton Head [Island] — nothing anywhere.”
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .