City shuts off water for code violations
Visitor Question: Our City Council has adopted a policy of shutting off city-provided water to residences to enforce code violations. An example would be that if you have an RV parked on your property, too close to the sidewalk, you are in violation, and a letter will be sent stating that your water will be immediately shut off until the RV is moved. They have done it many times. Is such an action legal?
Editors Reply: We are going to leave your question about whether this is legal alone, since we are not attorneys and make it a practice not to try to act like we are. The legality would depend on Washington state law, your local ordinances, and the justification the city is using.
However, we will comment that as planners (some of whom have been in charge of code enforcement), we find this to be a drastic action, especially if the threat of water cutoff arrives in the same letter as the first notice of violation. We will even offer the opinion that such menacing tactics will backfire on the city because word will get around that your city is too strict and too draconian.
A minor factor to consider is whether there is any other source of water available to homes. That is unlikely, but we have heard of such situations, especially when a number of residents still have wells in certain parts of a city.
We also have heard of situations where after repeated efforts at code enforcement, usually at the level where the residence meets the code's standards for being condemned as uninhabitable, there is a threat of utility cutoff. This certainly would not be applicable to a first notice about an improperly parked or stored RV, however; this would be more likely if the house is literally in danger of falling down or catching on fire.
In short, we cannot think of any possible justification for such an action on the part of a city, from a political and resident engagement perspective. This is just terrible governance, and your city needs to find another way to bring people into code compliance without threatening something that is essential to life itself and certainly to the very cleanliness and good maintenance that code enforcement is meant to support.
You could try expressing your concerns about this practice to the city attorney and the municipal judge, each privately. This would allow you to assess whether this technique is being supported by the legal system or by the political system. We're betting on the latter.
If it is the elected officials who are perpetuating this system, try to figure out how each council person feels about it. Maybe you have a city staff member who is out of control, and the elected officials are afraid to confront that person. You just don't know until you start having conversations.
By the way, try to keep these conversations from feeling confrontational; an information-seeking tone is more likely to lead to candor. Also try to talk with one person at a time, so that people are not influenced by what someone else has said.
Altogether, we surely don't like this practice. On this website, we take the position that the goal of code enforcement is not punishment at all; the goal should be obtaining compliance with the codes.
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