Written in code

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André J. "Frenchy" Rheault took photos of these three temporary signs installed by the city of Denton this spring after he was cited for the temporary signs on his company vans, which code enforcement told him do not comply with the city's ordinance.
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City revisits enforcement of property standards

Last year, Denton’s code enforcement department investigated more violations than ever before.

They took pictures of junk cars and other trash. They ordered fences and roofs be repaired. They sent letters calling attention to peeling paint and stagnant water.

According to a Denton Record-Chronicle analysis of 2012 data, officers investigated more than 16,000 cases, five times what they worked five years ago, when employees looked into a problem only after someone called City Hall to complain. A dozen officers worked proactively in new and old neighborhoods alike. As a result, scores more Denton residents opened their mail at some point last year to find a notice of violation from code enforcement.

This year, the City Council revisited the department’s operations for the first time since passing sweeping reforms with the property maintenance code in 2009 and 2010. The council shared its concerns over increasing community complaints about code enforcement during a lengthy discussion in January and urged some reforms. The department continued its work, and from January to August, wrote 14,371 notices of violation on more than 11,000 cases worked.

The council revisited the issue again during a workshop session Sept. 17. They didn’t pull the threads on the revised code itself. But they recommended the department be renamed to the Community Improvement Services Division, to help change the perception — both inside City Hall and out among residents — that the work is about enforcing community standards.

“I think we have plenty of teeth right off the bat, and that’s our problem,” council member James King said. “I think plenty of people realized there are teeth, and they’re getting hauled to court.”

“I think we’re kind of overkilling it,” he added.

Code enforcement officers investigated an average of 3.68 violations per address, according to the analysis. Some of the 8,700-plus locations city employees visited last year were to repeat violators or to dangerous buildings. The top 10 most frequently visited addresses, half of them owned by absentee landlords, racked up more than 560 possible violations between them.

Not quite 10 percent of the addresses officers investigated — about 865 — logged more than the average number of violations.

The city needs both the rules and the officers to be able to respond to an uncooperative property owner, council member Jim Engelbrecht said.

“We want to be a nice guy, but if you really have a mess, and you want to play hardball, then we can play hardball, too,” Engelbrecht said.

Many city notices involved a health and safety issue that did trigger, or may have eventually triggered, a complaint from someone.

But the analysis also showed that thousands of notices didn’t fall into that category – for example, letters telling residents that they put out the trash bin at the wrong time or let the lawn get too high — and may never have spurred a call to City Hall.

The lion’s share of cases — about 5,700 — investigated a single violation at a single address.

Some residents have begun to question whether proactive enforcement of the property maintenance code, particularly for aesthetic matters, is a good use of the city’s resources. The department has a dozen officers, which several council members said appeared to be a lot considering the city’s size.

Dalton Gregory looked into that, he said, telling fellow council members that it was enough manpower for an officer to drive through certain districts once every 14 days and in other districts once every 28 days.

Denton landlord Al Sanchez, a former City Council candidate, got notice-of-violation letters after trimming trees at some of his rental homes because he put the branches out too soon for pickup. He also received one after a tenant left a chair and an aquarium on the driveway near the garage. He got more letters when tenants put the trash can out at the wrong time. When some boxes fell off a tenant’s recycle bin, he got a notice from the city, too.

“My tenants are upset,” Sanchez said. “But I tell them if you don’t get it done, it’s going to cost you.”

City workers photograph the offending action and send that photo with the notice. In the photo of Sanchez’s properties, the rest of the homes and landscapes appear clean and well-maintained. That’s some of the rub for Sanchez in the city’s notices.

“It’s no longer health and safety issues — it’s any nuisance they feel,” Sanchez said. “If they ask you to trim along the sidewalks, the edging, that’s beyond code enforcement, that’s being an HOA [homeowners association].”

Mayor Mark Burroughs asked that the newly named department make sure its staff members get credit for doing their job by communicating directly with people or leaving notices on doors. He wanted them to avoid making the quantity of violation letters the goal.

“If the house is maintained otherwise, but … [has] that one thing, or they have a box of clothes sitting on a patio, or whatever it is, then you avoid the whole thing,” Burroughs said. “In 90-95 percent of the time, you’ll have a happy, positive relationship established — that you are looking out for people and not looking for an opportunity to pound them.”

Violating the city’s property maintenance codes carries a possible criminal penalty, whether the violation is a health and safety issue or one of more aesthetic concerns.

Andre “Frenchy” Rheault, owner of Frenchy’s Lawn Service, received three citations for signs he put on his trucks. For many years, Rheault has placed big blue letters on his orange vans at the behest of local charities and parked the vans in key locations to help promote charity events.

He’s been told by community groups that the van messages help raise more money. Despite the goodwill, some residents have complained that Rheault’s vans with their flexible, community-oriented messages don’t follow the city’s sign ordinance.

He fought the tickets in court, something he was able to do successfully in neighboring Corinth. But a six-member jury trial in Denton ruled against him Aug. 28. He was ordered to pay more than $1,400, he said.

“I wanted to win to help the cause to get them [the city] to step back and take a look at this,” Rheault said.

“I could say screw this, I’ll just do Dallas Drive,” he added. Rheault parks most of his fleet at his office location on Dallas Drive, home to his “Van of Fame,” a spot where visitors and residents alike can see the message of the day on the drive into the central part of the city. “But that’s not me,” he said.

However, until he gets clarification from the city on what he can do, he has turned down requests by community groups for a message van, he said.

“So far, they’ve only told me what I can’t do,” Rheault said.

The department’s approach when it comes to health and safety issues is correct, Burroughs said. The department used to spend about $15,000 a year with a contractor to mow tall grass and weeds. Now, it has three contractors and a $120,000 budget to help secure vacant buildings, demolish unsafe structures and remove trash and debris.

But Burroughs has repeatedly called for a different approach when employees are evaluating an aesthetic issue.

“We have been emphasizing the punitive in the nature of the way of our notices of violation, the encouragement of uses of notice of violation, even the wording of the thing,” Burroughs said. “We’re just trying to make our city look better. You don’t punish the community.”

Mike Cochran, a former City Council member, said the possibility of a criminal penalty with a code enforcement violation, per se, isn’t what bothers him. As he tried to appeal one of four notices he received in 2012, he learned he could neither appeal a warning nor find out who complained about his property — and that bothers him.

He is also concerned that a second notice of a violation can automatically become a citation or ticket.

“I know,” Cochran said. “It happened to me.”

He was cited for not having enough gravel on a driveway. He agreed that a rutted, dirt drive can be a health and safety matter, but he disagreed that all gravel drives need to be 4 inches deep and lined with a border in order to meet a health and safety standard.

“I don’t think it was the legislative intent of the City Council, by signing that ordinance, to criminalize that — by creating thousands of illegal, nonconforming driveways all over town,” Cochran said.

But without a grandfathering provision, that’s what happened, he said.

The council members had said, as they passed the sweeping reforms in 2010, that they would come back and add some kind of grandfathering provision. They also pledged to revisit the ordinance in six months. Neither appears to have happened.

Code enforcement is valuable for a community, Cochran said, but the pursuit can affect a community’s livability, too.

“A community is more than golf course lawns,” Cochran said. “As a misguided form of civic improvement, it can erode the love people have for a community.”

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

BY THE NUMBERS

16,146: Total code enforcement investigations in 2012

8,754: Number of addresses investigated

3.68: Average number of violations investigated per address

859: Number of addresses with 4 or more violations investigated

SOURCE: City of Denton Code Enforcement


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