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How far can the city go in forcing citizens to obey codes?

by Charles
(Minnesota)

Our city is really gonzo about forcing citizens to keep their property "code worthy." Every person up and down our street has received a "code violation" letter based on an anonymous complaint to the city. One has a boat parked inproperly. Another had too many pets. Another neighbor hadn't stacked firewood "properly".


While my complaint is probably the most valid, I bought a used fence in the fall and am waiting until spring to install it, apparently until its installed, my property "improvement" is just debris. While these complaints come to the city "anonymously" can they really, legal enforce anything?

Editors' Reply: Your city really can go pretty far in enforcing its codes, which are actually municipal laws. It does sound like your city is on a campaign, and if you think it's excessive, you should go to a city council meeting and complain when citizens are given a chance to speak.

There's a good chance that this code enforcement campaign came either from the individual preferences of one of your city council members (whatever the "city council" may be called in your city), or else they are responding to political pressure or an effective complaint from a citizen.

Don't be surprised that these code violation notices are coming as a result of an anonymous complaint. That is the most common basis of code enforcement in the U.S. today. Most cities just don't have the money to send inspectors out driving around randomly looking for violations.

As you perhaps have found out already, typically a notice gives a citizen a certain number of days to correct the alleged code violation. The inspector comes back on or after that date to see if the violation has been "abated," as they call it in the business. If so, usually nothing further happens.

If the inspector comes out after the allowed time frame, however, and finds that you didn't correct the "violation," you may be sent a summons to appear in municipal court. If this happens to you, there's no need to freak out or hire a lawyer, unless you just want to. Most people just go talk to the judge.

Conditions vary widely, but usually the judge isn't a full-time city employee and may or may not be sympathetic with the code enforcement people. Our advice is to think the best, and to expect that the judge will be reasonable. Don't show a negative attitude, and just go there and be factual.

If you or your neighbors have photos to back up your statements or your argument that the condition really isn't bothering anyone, by all means take the photos to court.

In your case, you can point out that it's winter in Minnesota, and if you put up a fence in the weather you're probably having, it wouldn't be sturdy. Be very earnest in explaining any hardships you have and how you'll get on it first thing when spring comes.

Since I can see your frustration, be sure not to show that in court. It won't help you and it might hurt you.

Keep in mind through all of this that you have every right to see in writing the "code" that you are violating. Ask for a copy; see what it says. The more subjective you think the inspector is being in his or her interpretation, the more likely you can argue your case successfully with the judge.

The judge can decide to continue your case to a particular date (which sounds likely in your own case), give you more days or months to comply, throw the case out as not valid, or say you're guilty and that you'll have to start accumuulating a fine of a certain number of dollars per day until you call the code inspector and get them to come out and see that you have "abated" the "violation."

In some states the municipal judge can send you to a county or higher level court if you appear a few times in municipal court and still haven't taken care of the violation.

So really, to answer your question directly, the city can go pretty far. It's just that the punishments almost never include jail, but they can become very bothersome. You might as well "face up" from Day 1.

Most cities adopt standard codes, so it would be pretty typical to have laws against stacking firewood right on the ground (the theory is it might attract rats). But if the inspector thought the stacking wasn't "proper" because it wasn't neat enough, you or your neighbor might be able to argue against that and win.

Many cities have laws against parking boats or RVs in certain zoning districts too. Restrictions on the number of pets are common too.

Now you're learning about your particular city. You may want to take such things into account if and when you move again. To live totally without these kinds of regulations, you'll have to live in a rural area. But we can tell you there's a wide degree of variation between cities even in the same metropolitan area.


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Comments for How far can the city go in forcing citizens to obey codes?

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we're close to losing property rights and all privacy
by: Anonymous

I remember growing up, and all through young adulthood code compliance in towns was for the flagrant problems, the guy who collected broken down cars or abandoned houses. Then there was the rise of HOAs in the 90s that nitpicked over every detail, causing many to claim they'd never live in a neighborhood with an HOA. Over the past 10 years, towns have gotten into code enforcement, to the point of ridiculous. In Fort Collins, CO, I had a neighbor maliciously turn me in for 'overoccupancy'. There was no probable cause, but yes, I'm one person in a four bedroom home. Try the humiliation of going from bedroom to bedroom with a city code guy. He found nothing. Apparently the neighbor can do it again, and again. I'm pretty sure the city views housing stock as theirs, I'm just allowed to visit, and be inspected. It's out of hand.

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Slight over height
by: Demisx

I've recently got an "Order to Comply" from the Los Angeles Department Building and Safety (LADBS). I have portions of the perimeter wall at 7.5' tall around my pedestrian and driveway gates that are faving the street. I had to raise the wall due to a number of trespassing incidents on my property resulting in property being stolen from my backyard. Honestly, I've been living in fear for my family for a number of years until I've raised the wall to 7.5' where outsiders can no longer easily pick over it. Ever since there have been 0 incidents and we can finally sleep at night. The city is now forcing me to either reduce the height or apply for Zoning Administrator Adjustment that would cost me close to $8K and many hours of prep time. I feel like it is unfair and inadequate in my case. Is this something that a judge would understand? I have incidents recorded on camera accompanied by police reports. Also, I have no neighbors across the street from me who could possibly get adversely affected as I'm facing a hillside. If there are better ways to go about solving this, please let me know.

Editors' Response: Without knowing every specific of the law in Los Angeles, it seems to us that your choices are just as you stated: either take the wall back down to the maximum height allowed, or apply for what is generically called a zoning variance across the country.

It seems that your particular situation might lend itself to a sympathetic hearing before a zoning administrator. (Readers, in some places, rather than deciding on a variable request through a public process before a zoning board of adjustment, a staff person holds an administrative hearing and makes a decision.) However, that is not a sure thing, as the staff person might think others are similarly impacted by fear of crime and therefore you do not have a unique situation. The "unique situation" is the basic legal argument for granting a variance.

You might try to have an informal talk with the zoning staff to try to figure out their attitude before you put up the money for a variance application.

You mention a judge. Perhaps that is what the hearing officer is called in Los Angeles. In most parts of America, a judge does not enter the picture unless and until someone wants to appeal a decision of a zoning variance board or hearing officer.

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FIXING AND SELLING CARS ON PROPERTY
by: Anonymous

We have neighbors constantly selling and fixing cars on our street and it causes problems because people are constantly coming and going and it leaves the area nasty. NEIGHBORS have complained and complained to code enforcement I know about 10 times and they go to court. They die down for a minute but starts back up and start doing it after hours and on weekends whereas code enforcement says they don't work on weekends. How can the laws be enforced if no one works on weekends where they can be caught fixing cars. Sometimes they take the cars somewhere else during the day and bring them back after hours. We need help. Can homeowner be made to move if they don't comply? they are just nasty.

Editors Comment: Sorry to hear this is happening to you. For the weekend work problem, explore the possibility that code enforcement would accept date and time stamped photos that you take. Most cameras now can be set to superimpose that information right on the photo. In one case we know of, they accepted this, after the homeowner took a photo of the local time and temperature clock immediately before and after photographing the offense. There's no guarantee this will work, but see what they think of this.
Unfortunately, no, code enforcement has no power to make someone move, no matter how many times they violate a law. Municipal judges can issue orders and provide punishments, but if the offender is able to bear the punishment, this situation can go on for a long time. Smart judges escalate the punishment so that the bad behavior no longer occurs.

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may have a zoning code violation?
by: Anonymous

I bought one of those 20 by 20 metal buildings. I noticed in small print it said customer is responsible for all permits, so I asked the sales person did I need a permit to put this on my property. He said it depends on if a concrete floor, electrical, plumbing were going to be in it. I told him "No", he said as long as it was on my property, I didn't need a permit.

Living in the the city I had no knowledge of Zoning laws, so you can guess what happened. After going through two administrations, because one never documented anything, I'm still receiving letters from the code administrator. He said he would let me know after inspecting my building what he has found, all over someone who complained about my building.

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CODES UNEVENLY ENFORCED
by: Anonymous

We received a warning for having our trash and recycling on the curb before 6 p.m. the day before pickup(used to be anytime, the day before) and have complied. A month later, many neighbors still put theirs out early, and calls to city officials have done nothing to change this. I was told by the head of the DPW that we and one other house on our street got the warning, no one else. If more than half of our short side street is still in violation, what sense does this make? Is it legal for a city or town to single out 1 or 2 homes for a violation when others are clearly in violation too, and continue to be so?

Editors' Comment: Many cities use a complaint-based code enforcement system. The opposite is systematic enforcement, where each household in an area is evaluated. If your city's enforcement is complaint-based, and if you told the city what specific addresses were not following the regulation, then you have a very legitimate gripe. In reality, though, something like the times for putting out the trash may not be seen as a code matter. All in all, your city government is not behaving well on this one.

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Educate yourself, first and foremost
by: Brian in NH

The firewood issue is indicative of the problem.
Poor laws lead to appeals. Combine that with an authoritative personality (not all of us Code guys are jackbooted thugs, y'know!), and you have more appeals.

If you remove the discretion of the inspector, you not only let the citizens know exactly where they stand, but it reins in the aggressive inspector and removes his interpretation, rather than the statute as written, from enforcement.

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appeal code or zoning decisions; it's your right
by: Anonymous

All codes and even zoning ordinances provide the ability for a person who feels the municipality's
code enforcement person has interpreted the law incorrectly can file an appeal. This may be in front of a Board of Appeals or Hearing Officer and generally there is a fee to be heard. Each case is judged on its merits and by an independent third party.

Editors Chime In:

Good point. In a number of jurisdictions and matters, though, the right to appeal is to a court of law only. You're reminding us to say that an informal meeting with the supervisor of whoever inflicts the negative result is always worth pursuing.

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