The city of Brookings will proceed with crafting a “nuisance property” ordinance, the council agreed after discussing it in a work session Monday afternoon.
The issue has been in the news at the county level after a Harbor home burned down but people continued to live in an adjacent garage. The home has no running water and transients were using five-gallon buckets as toilets and allegedly dumping them over a nearby cliff into the ocean, neighbors said.
The county, which is still talking about hiring a code enforcement officer, had to obtain a search warrant and gather evidence to present its case — that the property was unhealthy and unsafe — in a quasi-judicial hearing last month. Neighbors began complaining last fall, after the fire gutted the house there, and county officials are still working with the homeowner to address the issue.
That incident opened the floodgates for other properties in Harbor.
In Brookings, however, the city doesn’t even have an ordinance addressing such properties, which are typically defined as being in disrepair or in such unhealthy conditions and provide refuge for vermin, transients and drug users.
The issue began rearing its head in Brookings when new residents at Macklyn Cove began complaining about the transients on Mill Beach. While there are no homes on the beach in which transients live, nearby homeowners often complain about noise, campsites, littering, drug use and late-night fires on the public beach.
That issue has been debated at the city level for years, with the only solution seemingly being to roust people out if they’re causing problems or trespassing on the hillsides owned by South Coast Lumber.
“Mill Beach is kind of a different animal,” said Brookings City Attorney Marth Rice, addressing its inclusion in such an ordinance. “The public has rights to access the beach. It’s not something the city can simply shut down. There, we’re addressing bad behavior; it’s aimed more at a person rather than an area. Even shutting down the (city-owned) parking area is not an action against a property owner.”
Some properties sit empty, as owners have died or moved away and their heirs don’t keep them up.
“If you leave a property vacant for enough time, people will move in and do whatever it is they want to do,” Rice said.
The council discussed the extent to which such an ordinance would reach, including the unlikely odds of evicting owners from untenable homes, including commercial properties — and even neighbors that might incessantly report another merely because they don’t get along.
The burden of proof, as at the county, would fall to the city, Rice said.
City councilors agreed any proposed ordinance should not extend to people who are, say, merely being loud — that can be remedied with a citation — and shouldn’t strongarm people when issues can be solved civilly.
“These need to be substantiated,” Rice said. “‘Not just a (complaint) report.”
“We take these calls every day,” said Police Chief Chris Wallace, of complaints of noise, drug use and other disruptive behavior. “This (ordinance) would be a tool in the tool box, but we wouldn’t be using it every day. We can get our hands around a lot of this by talking to the property owners.”
Owners of some nuisance properties, Wallace noted, don’t even know what’s going on, as they live elsewhere. And evicting a homeowner from their land, no matter how unhealthy or unsafe it is, could prove problematic, the council agreed.
And then there’s Jake, hypothesized Mayor Jake Pieper.
“OK. I’ve got loud music, I’m smoking dope on the porch where the neighbors can see, I’m shooting a rifle and it’s an ongoing thing,” he said. “Citations would make me stop, but I’m trying to figure out when we’d say, ‘You gotta move’ and shut the door.”
Wallace said he wasn’t thinking about owner-occupied units when the proposed ordinance was crafted and said most of those kinds of problem should be tackled with discussions with the property owner.
“The neighbors say, ‘You know what’s going on and you’re not doing anything,’” he said. “We could (approach the owner) and say, ‘You’re taxing services, and what can we do to remedy this?’”
Rice warned, too, that similar to civil rights proponents tackling city panhandling ordinances in court, any ordinance cannot be perceived as targeting the homeless.
The council also discussed “chronically disorderly properties” and how they might fall under such an ordinance, another situation Rice said is more based on people’s behavior than the condition of a piece of property.
And such situations — typically a bar or adult entertainment club zoned to be in certain areas — can be resolved by talking with an owner. And if the situation isn’t rectified, a city can always close down an establishment for a set period of time.
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org