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Code Enforcement Is Vital to Community Development

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"Code" means a particular part of the law in the U.S., so code enforcement occurs when cities and towns enforce their local laws. Usually though the term pertains to property upkeep. We also cover why building codes dealing with new construction are important.  Aggressive but sensible approaches to bringing property owners into compliance with the law can be an important part of maintaining the appearance, functioning, and property values of a neighborhood.

Typically codes deal with the exterior maintenance of structures, overgrown vegetation, outdoor storage, and such.

Most towns and cities practice only complaint-based code enforcement, largely for cost reasons. The opposite approach, called systematic code enforcement, most typically is employed when a local community determines that a particular area needs a concentrated maintenance effort to remain vital. We discuss this tool in more detail below.

In addition to this introductory article, this section includes three specialized discussions shown below.  Use the site search box if unsure. This article continues after the grid.

So when you hear someone loosely talking about code violations and why the city isn't enforcing the codes, the first question to ask yourself as a neighborhood leader is whether your town actually has adopted by ordinance a code that would cover the offending situation.

If so, you might have a clear path toward making property owners accountable for maintaining their buildings (both the main building and any garages, storage sheds, and such). You also may have a way to deal with some ugly or inappropriate things people keep outdoors.

If a town has a code, someone employed by the city government has responsibility for inspecting new construction and investigating complaints. Occasionally code enforcement is out-sourced to some consultant or sometimes nearby towns will share one officer, but that's not too typical.

Related Other Types of Codes

The building code feels different, in that it deals with the integrity of a structure from the beginning of construction.

However, we included that subject in this topic area because the origins and administrative principles are the same, even though typically a neighborhood isn't depending on the building code to resolve community appearance and neatness issues.

In contrast, the property maintenance code, if you have one, and the existing building code do deal directly with aesthetics and cleanliness, and thus the neighborhood impact, of buildings. Those are the topics usually associated with code enforcement.

How Enforcement Usually Works

Understand that the code enforcement person or building inspector isn't usually a police officer. Some municipalities do use the police for that function, but in larger towns and cities, even police spotting a code violation turn the matter over to another department that handles codes.

That's because a code violation is a municipal ordinance violation and therefore not subject to the same justice system with which police work on a daily basis.

If your neighbor leaves their old sofa on the porch, and you don't like it, that doesn't necessarly mean it is a code violation. Your particular code would have to speak directly to the situation. Although there's personal judgment involved, it doesn't stretch too far.

A few progressive communities have established formal or informal systems, inside government or inside of a non-profit organization, to handle neighbor disagreements within a mediation framework. It's a splendid idea, especially for recurring feuds where neighbors simply don't get along.

The opposite of a complaint-based system is often called a systematic or methodical program. Note that a building code is methodical because inspections during new construction occur when certain items are complete and prior to their being enclosed by future phases of construction.

Since the existing building code is typically applied only to projects that are major enough to require a building permit, it too is enforced through a methodical process.

In some cases a block by block "systematic" program of enforcing nuisance laws, or property maintenance codes, is important. If your neighborhood is in trouble, and you feel that property owners can afford to keep up their properties, but they aren't doing so, this is when the systematic, house-by-house program could prevent the neighborhood from moving into total decline.

The technique sometimes is called a windshield survey. This means that a code inspector or consultant drives through the neighborhood and peers through the windshield to identify apparent violations of the existing housing code or property maintenance code.

They also note weeds, grass that is taller than allowed by code, fences that are falling down, abandoned unlicensed cars, animals that are not permitted under the ordinance, or other and any other potential nuisance that is spelled out in the code.

Reasons for systematic code enforcement could be:

1. A relatively large number of complaints in a particular geographic area are received.

2. A jurisdiction receives many complaints about aesthetics, as opposed to structural defects such as a porch that's falling off the house. Cosmetic complaints might be about peeling paint, derelict cars, high weeds, or piles of junk left strewn about the lawn randomly.

3. A neighborhood has a high percentage of rental property or a small sub-area that doesn't measure up to the standards of other community folks.

4. The potential still exists for a viable neighborhood if relatively superficial problems are remedied, or if landlords can be forced to reinvest in their properties to the extent that the community demands.

Tips for Neighborhoods Dealing with Nuisances

Non-residential properties are probably subject to a property maintenance code, and residential property may be covered by a variety of building codes for new construction, or existing housing codes that cover older residences.

Most places that have enacted housing codes also have nuisance codes. A common one that is falling by the wayside now is the maximum height of grass or weeds being fixed at 8 inches or 12 inches.

Whether your enforcement is systematic or complaint-based, watch your manners with code inspectors. Surprise, surprise, you'll get more done if you're nice to them!

If you get a reputation with the code official of being a pest, you won't have the attention you deserve when a genuinely egregious situation presents itself.

Especially if you're a neighborhood association, and you provide excellent information about potential code violations, this builds good will that your neighborhood will want.

If you want to complain anonymously, most places allow that. However, be sure to give enough detail and a correct address. You think this is really a silly thing for me to say, but I assure you that many folks call and just think the city knows about the yellow house on the corner.

Since figuring out what that means gets a little frustrating for the code enforcement officer, don't expect results any time soon if you leave vague information.

A major issue in some places is the municipal judges may not be very sympathetic with the neighborhood. If you're the person complaining, it's not always fair to blame the inspector; sometimes it's the judge who lets the property owner off with a wink.

If you're in a smaller town that hasn't enacted any codes, you can become an educator of your local city council or whatever it is called in your location. Explain that someone else actually writes these standard codes and they only pass a simple ordinance to adopt the code, adding in any exceptions or changes that they want.

When code enforcement fails to address a problem, and that will happen, your neighborhood or community organization should meet face-to-face with the property owners themselves. If this happens frequently, appoint a committee that can figure out the right approach to property owners in your particular culture.

Opposition to Code Enforcement

Many people resist the very idea of code enforcement, especially those whose lifestyle often makes them a target. Folks with a strong libertarian bent, artists, and eccentric people of all stripes will argue against the entire idea or a particular application of the law.

We've had a couple of interesting exchanges with our site visitors about the limits of code enforcement and avoiding code violations.

In some areas, usually upscale suburbs, code enforcement employees become unreasonably aggressive in response to pressure from elected officials who hear from vocal complainers.

If your neighborhood association thinks the enforcement program is too intolerant, one or two of you should meet with elected officials about the delicate balance between too much enforcement and not enough.

Wise use of standard international codes, typically developed and led by the International Code Council right now, can improve both the appearance and the longevity of the community's buildings. It can improve property owners' return on investment and preserve your reputation as a fine neighborhood or town in which to live.

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