Of Neighbors, Nuisances and the Law...

Of Neighbors, Nuisances and the Law...
Posted on 01/04/2016

By Councilman Michael Shelton

As a new year begins, we often resolve to become better people. I hope that this year we add to our list a resolve to be better neighbors.

As I have campaigned twice and served over the past four years, I have had the opportunity to speak to many residents.  Those conversations have covered many topics, but I can easily say that the most common conversation starts something like this: “What can be done about my neighbor who will not take care of their yard and home.  Their mess is hurting all of us.” This is not only the most common, but also one of the most difficult conversations that I have with residents. 

In a 2013 article, Palo Alto (Calif.) City Manager James Keene discussed the role of local government as establishing and maintaining agreements on how we are going to live together.

He said that in addition to providing municipal services, the role of local government is “...to make and enforce laws and to arbitrate conflicts. The core role of government is to provide mechanisms to mediate differences among citizens.”

Property owners have rights. Those rights extend until they begin to negatively impact others in the community.  The way an individual uses his property can impact his neighbors.  It’s something like the old story of a man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

 

In an attempt to strike a balance between the rights of property owners and the rights of their neighbors, Cottonwood Heights has a few sections of code (law) that help us resolve disagreements between neighbors.

Section 9.05 of the Cottonwood Heights municipal code defines nuisances, including what constitutes a nuisance, along with helpful specific examples of situations, conduct or activities that create nuisances.

For example, “nuisance” is defined (among several other things) as: “Unlawfully doing any act or omitting to perform any duty, which act or omission: annoys, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of three or more persons, at separate and distinct addresses in the effected neighborhood of the city.”

Some of the nuisances specified in the code include:

  • Properties where illegal drug are sold or used, prostitution, gang activity, nuisance parties or gambling occur. 
  • Properties with fire hazards, odors, fumes, gas, smoke, cinders, accumulation of garbage, refuse, waste matter, soil, litter, debris, plant trimmings, trash, damaged lumber, junk, metal, dirt, sand, gravel, concrete, machinery/machinery parts, salvage metals, abandoned appliances/furniture/cabinets/plumbing, boxes, barrels, bottles, cans and other household fixtures.
  • Properties with overgrown weeds, hazardous trees, hedges, or uncultivated vegetation.
  • Areas with visible graffiti, unsightly or deleterious objects or structures, or buildingswith missing or broken doors or windows.
  • Parking of construction equipment or machinery unless it is in a permitted zone or being used on a project covered by an active building permit.
  • exteriors, walls, fences, gates, driveways, sidewalks, walkways, signs or ornamentation, or alleys in such condition as to render them unsightly or in a state of disrepair.
  • Homes with garbage cans left in the street for more than 12 hours before or after the collection day, premises that contains any dead animals, animal parts, animal matter of any kind (except fertilizer), excessive dust and anything likely to harbor rats, mosquitoes, harmful insects, vermin or other pests.
  • Residences where owners keep or allow too many unrelated people on the premise or where residents park in an area required to be landscaped by city ordinance.
  • A property that depreciates the enjoyment and use of the property in the immediate vicinity.

As you read through the list, I wonder if your reaction was like mine.  I began by thinking of obvious examples of others who were un-neighborly with all their nuisances.  As I continued to read through these definitions, I realized that I have been an un-neighborly nuisance myself.

Some residents have wondered why the city does not cite every un-neighborly nuisance.  Other residents feel that code enforcement officers have harassed them. It is a difficult balance. I suspect that most of us are thankful that not every speeding violation results in a ticket. I also suspect that most of us do not want to see code enforcement officers on every corner with binoculars and rulers. At the same time, I have become convinced that many in our community want to live in a place where the maintenance of private property creates a community that we can be proud of. 

While the city tries to maintain agreements on how we are going to live together, I believe residents need to do their best to be neighborly.  First, you should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. 

Please do all you can to ensure that you are not the un-neighborly nuisance. If you are annoyed by your neighbor, think of how you can, in a neighborly way, solve the problem. Get together with a group of sincere volunteers and offer to help. Hubert H. Humphrey rightly said: “The impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbor.”

If you have exhausted your neighborly solutions, bring violations to the attention of city staff. City code enforcement officials will, in a neighborly way, enforce laws and arbitrate conflicts.  The code generally requires that the city provide residents with notice, and time to resolve the nuisance. In the end, we all have to live with each other.

A recent story shared by one of our code enforcement officers illustrates this kind of balance. After receiving a complaint from an upset neighbor, the officer visited a home with overgrown weeds and some junk in the driveway. As the owner approached the door, the officer realized it was an elderly woman who lived alone and needed a walker to get around. The officer asked if she had any family or friends who could help her improve her property.  The woman indicated that she lived alone and did not have family to rely on for help. When the officer returned to the complaining neighbor to explain the woman’s situation his tone changed from anger to compassion.

Whether you are the offender, or the offended, try to be more neighborly. Being more neighborly makes Cottonwood Heights a better place to live and work for everyone.