Community leaders: Ordinance enforcement change invites blight

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Dearborn City Council President Thomas Tafelski (left) fields a complaint from Bill Kalbfleisch about overgrown grass at a vacant house in the 800 block of North Denwood last Wednesday. Kalbfleisch, who lives at a well-manicured house a few doors down, said the 10-inch turf is “absolutely ridiculous.”

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — A recent change to the way the city enforces its exterior property maintenance codes is turning into a quickly growing problem – quite literally, in fact.

Starting this year, city administrators changed from three days to seven days the maximum amount of time between when a homeowner can be issued a citation for overgrown grass or weeds and when a contractor is sent out to cut the grass for them. The cost for abatement is $95 comprising a $20 contractor fee and a $75 administrative fee.

Along with the added time, the city has become looser on the height. While the ordinance says that 6 inches is the maximum height grass can grow before it has to be cut, city officials say that figure is closer to 8 inches this year, hearkening back to 2006, when the ordinance actually allowed for up to 8 inches.

Compounding matters, critics say, is that the previous method of enforcement, which was based on inspectors spotting problems in the field and issuing violations on the spot, has been switched to a primarily complaint-driven system, meaning that most abatement actions are initiated only after a resident has filed a complaint on a given property. And with a glut of foreclosed houses dotting the city’s neighborhoods – properties that banks are notoriously disinclined to maintain – some say the lax enforcement is becoming an acute problem.

At the City Council meeting May 17, Council President Thomas Tafelski was critical of the policy, questioning how it would lead to better compliance. He said that he has received numerous complaints about problem properties and called it unfair for homeowners who keep up their lawns

Department of Public Works Director James Murray replied that the city was taking a more “compassionate” approach to enforcement after receiving complaints from violators that the old policy was too heavy-handed.

Tafelski was unmoved.

“Can I ask you this?” he said. “How about me as the neighbor next door who cuts my grass every week or I have my landscaping company come and I pay $1,000 a year, where’s the compassion for me?”

The concerns about backsliding standards hit home for Mary Beth Reith, who is president of the Historic Aviation Property Owners Association as well as a member of a blue-ribbon committee tasked with creating a five-year action plan for the city.

Maintenance issues are the overwhelming No. 1 problem facing her neighborhood, Reith said, citing a 2002 survey of association members and anecdotal evidence from complaints she has received.

But she said it’s not just an unsightly lawn or some unkempt hedges that pose the problem, it’s the door they open. She pointed to the “broken-window” theory, a social psychology school of thought that says, if left to fester, small social order problems – like high grass, or litter – can lead to bigger, more widespread problems like vandalism or squatting.

And what was once “steady progress” toward beautification has eroded steadily in recent years, said Reith. She said enforcement this year is the worst it has been since she first purchased her home in 1983.

“I have great respect and admiration for (Mayor John O’Reilly Jr.), but if I hadn’t gone over these things with him privately already, I wouldn’t be saying it in the paper,” Reith said.

The changes in enforcement also have led to something of a revolt among some ordinance officers. In step with the policy changes, three have retired or resigned in protest of the new directives.

One of those officers is Bill Parsons. The 62-year resident started working for the city five years ago as a post-retirement job that he believed offered him a chance to better his community. But when told he would have to take a less-aggressive approach to enforcement, he said he felt like he was being asked to “walk down the street with blinders on.”

“I decided I wasn’t going to be a part of watching the city go down the tubes,” said Parsons, who retired in April.

“Being kinder and gentler doesn’t get the job done, and that doesn’t mean you have to be hardnosed, but sometimes it takes some initiative to get the people to understand what needs to be done.”

In an interview Thursday, O’Reilly acknowledged that the new policies weren’t working well enough. The initial thought, he said, was that the changes would give residents more of an opportunity to take corrective measures themselves and free up inspectors to do other work. He also said the decision was internal departmental decision, not sent from his office.

But after taking a recent drive through the city, he said it became apparent that the changes aren’t having the desired effect.

“I realize that it isn’t always easy to stay on top of (maintenance), but it became clear that we need to re-examine things,” O’Reilly said.

Over the last week, he has met with key staff members to determine what measures could be taken to improve compliance, and yesterday he was expected to present a new enforcement plan to the council.