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

by Charles
(Minnesota)

Last Updated: August 7, 2020


Visitor Question: 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 improperly. 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. If you have dates on your photos, so much the better, and if your photo is electronic but doesn't print the date, be sure to write down the date when the photo was taken and supply that to the 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 accumulating 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.

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.

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

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Grass not green enough and trash bins
by: Anonymous

I was fined $200.00 dollars by the city of Moreno Valley for my lawn not having enough green grass and for moving my trash bins from the side of my neighbors to the side near my front door because my neighbors were constantly putting their trash in my trash bins. Yet I got fined for moving them because they were obstructing the view of my house. I do not live in an area that pays Home Association dues but got fined anyway. I appealed the citation but was found guilty for violating the city code and because the code enforcer lied and said I was given four warnings and the court believed her. It is totally unfair. At just about every house on my block grass looked like mine, bald in some places and green in others. I feel like I was singled out.

Editors Comment: This action of the city inspector seems completely petty, especially concerning the green grass. This seems completely dependent on rainfall, or on watering, which seems to us to be something a city would not want to encourage. It is harder for us to say that the trash can citation was inappropriate, as we don't know what your codes say, but it sounds like you had a good reason for doing what you did. You probably have the right to a legal appeal to a court, but that might cost you far more than $200.

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City changing homeowners address
by: Anonymous

Is there a legitimate reason the City wants to enforce the changing of my address? I’ve had same address over 20 years.

It will be costlier for me to have all of my necessary documents changed, than most of my neighbors as I live in a resort area, retired and full time. Others use their homes to either generate income or vacation purposes.

Editors Comment: You will have to be the judge of whether you think the city has a legitimate reason. However, there is no doubt that the city has the power and authority to do so. I once wrote up and sponsored an address change scheme that straightened out a completely ridiculous and unpredictable numbering, so I won't be one to say that the city is being irrational. However, they also could be unnecessarily nitpicking. One idea is to talk with police and fire departments to see if they are the ones saying that your current address is confusing to new first responders. If they say no, it isn't, then you have better grounds for arguing against it. Find out if your city council has to approve the renumbering; in all likelihood, they will. If so, then you have to get political with this by joining with your neighbors to make some noise.

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Code Inspector refuses to acknowledge disability
by: Anonymous

My husband was injured in Afghanistan, leaving him with a severe TBI and PTSD. This has changed his ability to function like normal at home and in society. He gets us in trouble at least once a year or more with code enforcement due to collecting too much stuff on our property that my husband finds useful but the city finds it failure to maintain.

I have spoken with the enforcement officer in the beginning and asked him to talk to me instead of my husband who has severe short term memory loss among many other issues. The officer has not once complied with my request.

There have been times that my husband was able to comply and other times he needed more time. This last time they decided to send the violation notices to him but then when he didn't comply on time, they sent the court order notice in my name.

It also seems to be that only a handful of people in our rural community are selected for code violations. We are in a small rural area and I see other properties just as bad with no improvement, and many other violations of different nature.
When the military retired my husband for his injuries, I picked a rural area with hopes to avoid social/civil problems but that hasn't worked out well. I have developed some severe medical issues that keep me from being able help much outside.

Your response would be much appreciated.

Editors Comment: We are sorry this is happening to you. About the only helpful thing we could suggest is talking to whoever supervises this inspector to make sure that any notices are sent to both of you, and that any oral conversations that take place should occur with you.

By the way, towns and counties should always send their notices in writing, addressed to all property owners. Oral conversations between code inspectors and property owners are fine when needed for the inspector to be civil and friendly, but they are no substitute for the correct written notices.

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City officials not enforcing code!
by: Anonymous

I have a neighbor whose lawn is connected to mine. Their lawn is full of weeds and bald spots with no grass, the bushes are unkempt, and the house looks like it's abandoned. I've complained for several years now and the city officials make up excuses for these neighbors. They'll say we can't make them treat their weeds and that they only have to keep them cut. Also the neighbor keeps cutting it bald and the city officials said that the neighbor has to have grass but never do anything about the neighbor's bald lawn! They just keep ignoring my complaints. I personally feel like I'm being ignored because of my race. Can you give me some advice on what to do?

Editors Reply: What the city is telling you would be the pretty much standard response from a city across the USA. In fact, we haven't heard of a city successfully prosecuting a violation because grass is in poor condition or because there are weeds of less than the lawful maximum height either. So yes, it could be very annoying, but these conditions are unlikely to be code violations anywhere. Your complaints might be ignored because of your race; that also would be common in the U.S., but in this case, it is extremely unlikely that a person of any race would get a different response. Not every obnoxious behavior is a code violation.

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I'm being forced to sell my boat
by: Anonymous

I have lived in my community for 22 years and have never had any complaint from any of my neighbors or government officials until 3 days ago. I have a boat that I have had for 6 years now and about 3 years ago the city decided to build a park in my neighborhood. Three days ago I received a letter from code enforcement tell me that I have to move my boat from in front of my home, which will cause me a financial burden. My issue is in one month the city plans on opening the park and I feel that this is not right because if there was going to be an issue with my boat being on my property why wait until you built the park to tell me there was a violation. It's not only that code enforcement officers have been in my neighborhood on many occasions before there was a park, not once did they stop and tell me there was a violation. Besides that, I live in a community that is off the beaten path. No would know that we were there if they didn't take the wrong road. You see I worked hard for everything that my family and me have. I'm an American with a disability and now they're telling me I have 4 days to move my boat, and I don't have money to store my boat every month.

Editors Reply: On a personal level, we are sorry this is happening to you. The only realistic options to selling your boat seem to be talking to your elected officials or waiting to tell your story to a judge, who may well be more compassionate than code enforcement officers. Also make sure you understand exactly what the code prohibits; sometimes if you cover a boat or vehicle, or move it to another place on your property, you can become compliant with the law.

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Selective Enforcement of codes on Landlords who have an ability to pay fines
by: A Compassionate but Exhausted Landlord

Please advise. I am a Landlord in Spokane WA who serves low and middle income single family tenants. If a tenant leaves trash in their yard or keeps cars on their property, I receive a code violation. In the past, we could let the tenant know to please clean up their home or they would eventually lose their lease.

Now, the state landlord tenant laws have been re-written and we no longer have that ability to encourage our tenants to correct code violations. In fact, any interaction with a tenant can be construed as harassment and get us into legal trouble.

During the pandemic, tenants did not have to pay rent, yet code violations and fines were still being written and ultimately fall on the property owner (not the tenant who refuses to comply and abate their violations) to go to court or pay the fines ($538!!!).

Meanwhile, within blocks of this cited home, our city has allowed (and provided services which further encourage) entire camps of vagrants who have piles of garbage, broken down vehicles and RVs, tents, etc.

Please understand, I love our city and have worked for decades to improve the condition of housing and provide quality housing. I'm starting to feel the criminal justice system and city code enforcement only provides justice for criminals!

What is a compassionate Landlord to do other than sell these properties? This will sadly compound the very problem of homelessness that is plaguing our large and small cities across this nation. But as a landlord who has spent decades trying to do the right thing, I'm beaten down and tired.

How can I continue to be served with code violations I have absolutely no ability to correct? The city code enforcement standards have not been amended as the state landlord/tenant laws have been rewritten. It certainly feels like our city is only enforcing laws and codes upon those citizens who might have the ability to pay!

Editors Comment: Indeed you are in a tough situation, and you ask very valid questions. We suggest that you work with your city councilperson and the city attorney to try to find solutions that will both keep you legal with regard to your state tenant rights law and uphold your community's standards. Some code enforcement staff may be interested in this as well. In these conversations, keep pointing out that the goal of code enforcement should be correction of code violations, not collecting fines, so you all will need to think creatively about solutions that will work for conscientious landlords such as yourself. Evictions are both time-consuming and expensive, and as you point out quite correctly, may ultimately result in homelessness. Surely this is not sound public policy. If you know any more good landlords, enlist their help too, as spreading the workload both increases the possibility of success and may help to lessen the exhaustion factor. Best wishes for good results.

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No Grandfathering
by: Anonymous

I am just curious is it legal to make something like your current light fixtures a code violation?

My town passed a Dark Sky Ordinance and it requires all lighting to be replaced. Is this legal?

Editors Reply: Requiring all lighting to be replaced does sound extreme. If indeed that is what your dark sky ordinance requires, yes, it would be a code violation to keep the same exterior lighting fixtures.

It is pretty common to allow a time period for replacement of fixtures, if that is what is being required. Check into whether there is a prescribed number of years before this is actually required.

It is more typical for ordinances motivated by the dark sky principle to require shielding of exterior lighting, so that, for example, your front porch lighting shows your sidewalk and door but a shield keeps most of the light from reaching the sky.

Another common practice is to designate lighting zones, allowing for commercial districts to have appropriate safety-related lighting during certain hours without inflicting "light trespass" on residential neighbors at 3 a.m. A residential lighting zone usually allows for adequate lighting for the homeowner and visitors, but maybe not enough for those with a crime phobia. Check into whether there are any zones also.

Look into the specifics of your ordinance by reading it yourself, if you haven't. The newspaper or your neighbors are not necessarily reliable reporters of the details. If indeed the ordinance requires you to go out and replace every exterior light fixture on your property immediately, it might be difficult for this ordinance to withstand a legal challenge. Also in that case, it will be very difficult to enforce, and we cannot think of any local government that would have enough staffing to undertake a house-by-house search for violations.

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way over the top
by: Mark Gruici

I had a small fire contained in one room of my home. Damage was minimal; there was no structural damage but code enforcement refuses to allow power to be turned on until I allow them to inspect the entire property first. This house was built in the early seventies, has had several owners, and I do believe the code then is not good enough for today. I fear it will cost me thousands of dollars to upgrade to today's standards, bearing in mind the age of the home and that it is paid off and my insurance company has no problem here. What do I do? This will most likely bankrupt me since I am retired and on a fixed income now. So who can I go to for help? How can they do this and cause me to lose my home?

Editors Comment: We are so sorry this is happening to you. You are in a difficult spot, but try not to let fear dominate your response. First, make sure that this requirement for complete inspection is actually contained in your city's (or county's) fire or property maintenance code. Most likely it is, but it is certainly worth checking with the supervisor of the person who told you about the need for inspection. Then providing the inspection is actually required by the code, when you receive the inspection report, talk it over with the most competent electrician you can find to figure out the best fixes for the lowest cost.

Yes, the standard codes that most cities adopt have changed over the years, but you may possibly find that the repairs will be relatively minor, such as changing polarity or swapping out old-fashioned plugs for ground fault interrupters. You also may find that your fears are well founded, and major expensive upgrades will be required. But until you have an inspection report and a great electrician, you won't know for sure.

Now it the worst happens, and the repairs are complex and expensive, you will need to see if your city, county, or state has any programs that will cover the cost through a community development block grant program or a program aimed at your specific type of housing. Also start talking now with any neighborhood association or community development corporation that is active in your part of the community to see if they can help. Some organizations of seniors also sponsor occasional or regular events in which they enlist volunteer contractors for a day-long repair project.

In short, we hope you can find the financial help you may need, but first, try to remain calm and find out exactly what you are facing. Worrying about bankruptcy and losing your home won't help you make rational decisions when the time comes--but we know that the "not worrying" approach is much easier said than done. We wish you the best.

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Denial to increase driveway
by: Anonymous

We are facing a challenge and would like your advice in the best way you can. We wanted to create a driveway in order to have the disabled access from the back of the home to the front of the house. We contacted the City and they came, visually saw the projected work, and gave us the verbal go ahead to apply for the permit. We just completed the permit application, and they now just denied it and said the project cannot be completed. We are suspicious because our next door neighbor works at the City. We do not have an HOA. The new driveway will not cause any issues to the neighbor or people using the street. What's your advice?

Editors Comment: Ask the City staff member who denied the permit to explain. Permits for improvements such as driveways should not be subject to employee discretion, so insist politely on understanding what provision of your local ordinances the proposed driveway would violate. Start talking with your elected representative, a City Councilperson. Also talk to the supervisor of the employee who denied the permit. If you have the name of the person who visited your site, call that person for advice and guidance.

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Hoarded but surviving
by: Garrrn

I am a hoarder. I am a student. I am a resident of Sacramento, CA. I hoarded for 18 months as a coping mechanism. This for obvious reasons got out of control and to avoid adding to the recycling and landfill crisis here, I decided since most of my horde was of metal quality, whether it be mowers or power tools, I could at least feed and gas my truck while ensuring my problem would become something positive as I deposited my metal at a scrap yard.

Well... I couldn't have been more wrong. First off it's not easy paying the rent here, secondly nor the gas, and third attending school while managing an addiction and being rid of things lol. I didn't have much space and moved a lot to the front driveway. Code enforcement would eventually be sent and rightfully so. I go through the 14 days, each day I take more in, but by the 14th day (half way to my deadline of 30), the neighbor calling code had demonized me and called every friend they must have as building inspectors, CoE, and zoning are now all bullying me. I don't know what to do.

I say bullying me because the neighbor even went as far as to claim I was running an illegal recycling operation because I was "cutting metal and had appliances." Is this legal? Is there not a point in which it's harassment especially since I am addressing the problem?? Any tips would be very helpful. I have not only got to clear the front which is 95% complete, but I have 9 days to finish the entire property now. I'm just falling apart. I can barely sleep. I'm afraid to recycle my stuff else I further dig that hole. Life is quickly going to make me another number on the streets if I don't act with light speed reflexes and all I'm left with is closer to koala like reflexes.

Editors Respond: First of all, please calm down. Call some friends, relatives, classmates, or a nearby church to help you with the rest of your property. If you have a phone or camera, at least start recording how much stuff you are moving each day so that if you would wind up in municipal court, you at least can show progress. Code enforcement officers and zoning enforcement officers too can become overly diligent when they see conditions that they or the neighbors think are outrageous, but when you deal with them, make sure you are as respectful, quiet, and factual as possible. If enforcement people see you are really trying, often they will soften their approach a bit. But if you sound like you resisting, even if on the ground you are moving forward, they often will become more belligerent and stern. Also about now, investigate whether there is charity that would accept a lot of your items as donations. Where one of us lives, a major food pantry takes donations of almost anything it can sell, and best of all, they come get it and haul it off. Start thinking in that direction too. Good luck to you.

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Due Caution
by: Inspector

In reading some of the questions and responses, there are a few concerns. Some things to note: a good code enforcement officer (CEO) will, upon noting a violation, attempt to make contact with the owner or occupant of the property before issuing a violation. If a violation can be corrected without fines and opening a case, all the better. Depending on the hours of operation of the department, a knock at the door would not be unusual between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM. If there is a violation, deal with the violation and do not deal with the CEO's conduct at that time. Once the violation is cleared or abated, then go first to the CEO if you are concerned about their conduct. Do not underestimate the positive impact you can have by talking things out. Then you may approach their supervisor or an elected official, if things are still unsettled. Making a political, personal attack on the CEO while there is an open violation could be construed as obstruction, a felony in many jurisdictions. Use caution in how you pursue "bad actors" and try not to take it personally when a CEO is executing their duty.

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Served with a violation
by: Anonymous

My question is about parking in a field and my mom and brother staying in an RV (recreational vehicle) in a field. This is a field next to my sister's home, which is where I live. It's the last house on a dead end street. I park in the field because there is no room on the street, plus I am not allowed to block the gate leading to the field to allow access for the fire department. I've parked In the field for 10 years with the owner's permission. They put a chain link fence between my sister's property and the field, but they installed a chain link gate for me to access the field because we have always kept part of field mowed and cleaned up.

Then my mom and brother lost their home in a major wildfire and they have been waiting for money from a settlement related to the fire. So my mom asked the owner if they could stay in the RV on the property until they get compensation for the fire.

Now code enforcement gave us violations which must be corrected in 11 days. Yet all over Sacramento there is a homeless crisis, with RVs and tents and homeless people living along the roads. There are broken down vehicles and trash and I'm sure human waste everywhere they are. Officials seem to think that's OK but not my family's RV sitting in a field bothering nobody. Plus all over this area homes have several vehicles and boats parked on gravel and dirt or lawns. How is this not being targeted by someone because it's a code violation? yet I see lots of code violations that actually are worse. Now my family is being forced to become another homeless group parked along some road. Also the violation names my sister and her husband; yet it is not their stuff or property. The only thing is the RV gets power from my sister's house.

Editors Comment: It certainly seems like you are the victim of very uneven code enforcement. If you have not started by complaining calmly but firmly to the code inspector who sent or delivered the citation, that person's supervisor, and your city councilperson, you should do that in the next 36 hours.

Usually we take the position that if someone is violating a law (which a code is), the fact that other people are also violating the law isn't a defense. However, in this case, where there is a widespread disaster, leniency and common sense in code enforcement should predominate, in our opinion. So just start talking in a civil way with people who might be able to help, but really stand up for yourself. You might call a local TV station to ask for them to highlight your situation, use social media if you do that already, or organize a petition drive with your neighbors. If you have any paperwork about the settlement, be prepared to show that to try to demonstrate that this situation is temporary. Good luck to your family.

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Selective enforcement
by: Anonymous

I live in a neighborhood that is fairly lenient on violations however I had purchased an RV to fix up and it is located in the driveway not bothering anyone. My neighbor who doesn't seem to like me for whatever reason keeps calling because I have not registered the RV yet and the county has issued me citations for it not being registered. My question is how can it be legal if there are other neighbors that clearly have cars parked in their yard and unregistered vehicles in their driveway as well yet they are not being cited. How can it be legal to cite some and allow others to continue on.

Editors Reply: Just as every speeding vehicle on the interstate highway isn't stopped, but some are, what you call selective enforcement is common and probably would not work as a defense for you. However, that does not mean we think it is good practice. Calmly call this situation to the attention of code enforcement officials if you want to. You also can describe this situation to your elected official (such as a city or county councilperson) in the hope that they will either deal with the systemic problem or go to bat for you with the paid staff by pointing out that you are being treated more harshly than others.

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Code Enforcement harassment, yes or no?
by: Bombero

St Pete Fl: I submitted a permit request to have driveway resurfaced. The inspector came by and noticed I had a small temp carport up to protect my car from a pine tree sap, a permanent one was on its way. He wrote a violation for the carport, but went on to write up a code violation for not having four feet of space between my trees/foliage and the street. He added this foliage blocks traffic from seeing oncoming vehicles. His citation included cookie-cutter statements from code that make little factual sense relative to the foliage's possible obstruction of view at our dead-end home, all streets are 25MPH.

My house is the last house on the corner of a dead end street. The street in front of the house is 87 ft and to the side, 148 ft. There is no through traffic so no one could get up any speed to make it a dangerous traffic situation or even to consider it a throughway. The street entering on the 148 ft side and main housing street are preceded by speed bumps due to a school zone, again making it highly unlikely that anyone would miss an oncoming vehicle and no one has since built in 1969. According to neighbors who have lived in the area for many 30+ years, the house and streets are the same without any complaints till now.

I did not receive a reply other than receiving two of the same documents stating to show up in Code court. I called the Code Director two times but no reply. I called Operations Director four times and receive one call saying he would swing by and look at the situation but he did not. I called the Mayors Hotline, but received no reply. I consider lack of response is harassment, do you?

Editors Reply: Actually we would not call the failure to return your calls harassment, but it is surely bad government, and we don't like it.

As for the merits of your case, our two cents would be that you shouldn't be afraid to go to code court. The requirements to keep sight distances open at intersections or driveways are very common across the country, and as you indicate, are inflexible. So we don't think you should fault the code inspector, who is doing the assigned job of enforcing the ordinance as written.

The place where you may well receive broader consideration of the "factual sense" of the situation is in code court. What we are about to say is subject to individual personalities of course, but our experience is that judges feel a lot more freedom than code enforcement officers and supervisors to take into account individual situations. It does sound as if your vegetation is doing no harm, so go to court and make your best argument. In most places you do not need an attorney, although you might ask if it is customary and necessary to have one in your particular location.

If you are afraid of courts, try to be calm. This particular court is focused only on code situations and not any other situation in your life.

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Can a code enforcement officer do this?
by: Anonymous

I have been dealing with a code enpleaseforcement officer for about almost 2 years now in Napa County. First she came on my property without permission or a warrant, then she made us pack all of our stuff up and move it out, board up our windows and move out. So our house looks like it's abandoned. I told her I have animals out there and people have been trying to break into our house since she had us board it up and that I'm staying out there. So she has the pg&e shut off. [Editors' Note: presumably the electric company] Which now I have no water because we have a well pump that gives us water and the pump runs off pg&e. Can she do all this? She said our house is unsafe, but we had an architect look at it and he said it is not unsafe. The only thing is the foundation is the problem that we have now.

Editors Comment: Whether she is within her proper scope is a question we cannot answer from a distance. She may be able to do this because of a provision in your local code allowing all of these actions in case of an emergency situation. You do not feel it is an emergency at all, we understand, but everywhere foundation issues are considered quite serious.

If you really need an answer to the question about whether this code enforcement officer has exceeded her powers, contact her supervisors and discuss the question with them. Do not trust friends or even elected officials to have correct information. Then if you doubt what the supervisor tells you, you will need to consult an attorney.

Perhaps you could shift your mental focus to giving attention to the house. What is it about the foundation that the code enforcement officer is questioning? Can it be fixed reasonably? Eventually you or your heirs will have to deal with this question before the house can be sold, so one thing you could do is find out more about the problem perceived by code enforcement. This problem is likely to be perceived also by any private inspector involved in the eventual sale of the house.

On foundation issues, you are likely to find different contractors offering differing solutions at widely diverging prices. Get some bids.

Another small suggestion is that you may want to try having the architect you consulted write a letter on your behalf, addressing it to the department head above the code inspector you have been dealing with.

It's very stressful to cope with such situations, we know. Try to gain some perspective so you can choose among these various courses of action.

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CEO Told Neighbor She "Owns" Property Line Fence
by: Dominic

Visitor: A CEO in the city where we live decided to tell our neighbor that she "owns" the property-line fence, just completely owns it, and we have no ownership rights.

I pulled the plot maps; this is not remotely true.

We got a letter from the city to demolish the fence' it's been there the 7+ years we've lived here. There has been NO survey done by him or anyone recently, so why he's doing this is beyond me.

He then told this neighbor about every private report we've ever made about her house, even though she didn't live there for these complaints.

This has started a violent war of harassment by the neighbor, in-person, online, sending people to our home, and giving out our address. Complaints to the Mayor have actually resulted in nothing.

I have the plot maps. It's a traditional property line fence. What can we do about this? Should we sue the CEO?

Editors Comment: Now it's time to consult an attorney, with two goals in mind. You want to confirm your own reading of the maps and legalities about fences in your location. It sounds as if the city's executive isn't being logical, but local law and customs both are unpredictable. Then you want to use a little attorney muscle to get the city to stop hassling you and to get the neighbor to stop harassing you. Incidentally, if you want to sue, the attorney can help you figure out who should be sued.

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Violations for property I DO NOT OWN
by: Anonymous

Visitor Comment: For several years now I have been battling the City of Evansville, IN Building Commissioner's office for violation notices they are putting on my property. The notices pertain to a lot next to me that I DO NOT OWN. The Building Commission's office determined approximately 5 years ago that we do not own this lot but every year they are now continuing to post a notice flag on our property. Last year, after receiving one of their threatening notices, I emailed the code office and reminded them that we do not own the property in violation. They answered my email saying that "I feel that you are the owner". "Feel"??? Doesn't the code office have plat maps and owner records? I'm pretty sure that there is some political corruption going on here. The Building Commission's office is well aware of who owns the property in question. Any suggestions?

Editors Respond: Unfortunately sometimes there is political corruption in code enforcement matters. People in county and city government certainly have plats and also records of deeds that should allow them to determine property ownership. (Yes, we agree with you that the officer should do a lot better than "feeling" who owns property.)

Our best advice is two-pronged. First, make sure you keep a written record of what happened when. Keep any letters or other documents in a file. Then don't hesitate to present your file to the supervisor of the office in question. Second, discuss this problem in detail with your elected official (called a city councilperson most likely). Remain calm, rational, and focused during this discussion, but watch for reaction. If you sense that this official is part of the problem, you can always take your problem higher, to the mayor for instance.

If you feel reluctant to do this, enlist a community organization to help you in your cause. Having someone who knows the ropes go with you is a great comfort, and that person may be able to bring up other pertinent facts. If there is political hanky-panky going on, an experienced community organization person can help detect that and help you figure out how to counter it.

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Code enforcement
by: Mario

Visitor Comment: My village doesn't have a code for such things as ground level patios and fences but the code enforcement officer keeps coming to my house and telling me that I need permits for these things.

I went to the village office and the clerk there says that there are not codes for these things. But the last time the code enforcement officer claimed that the code was implemented last month.
The time before, he came to my house at 7am to say that he was driving by my house to work and he didn't like that I left some building debris in my back yard.

It seems weird that this is normal or that I can't do anything about it. I already complained to the village about the 7am visit. The clerk said that she would forward the information, but she didn't say where she would be forwarding it.

Editors Comment: If you are saying that there is no local ordinance that states you need a building permit to construct a new patio or fence, that would be quite unusual if your town has a building permit requirement for new construction at all.

If a building permit is required if you want to construct a new house, it is very likely that you need permits for this new construction and that the clerk is mistaken.

We say that because most cities and towns use standard international codes and only customize them a tiny bit if at all. Of course we can't say if you need a building permit for those items since we haven't seen your local ordinances.

As for the code enforcement officer coming by your house at 7 am to complain about building materials left outdoors, that seems quite unprofessional to us. Yes, it's definitely weird.

First of all, standard procedure would be the code officer to drive or walk by and note the outdoor storage and then return to the office to write up a code violation letter. You seem to be saying the officer came to your door to tell you that. This should not be done, at least unless you and the code enforcement officer have had some prior conversation about the exact same matter.

We certainly agree with you that no such conversations or inspections should be occurring at 7 am. We think that you should speak with your elected officials (such as mayor and city councilman) about that behavior, unless you mean that the officer was driving by at 7 am and went to the office without disturbing you. That doesn't sound like what you are saying.

So while we cannot answer your questions definitely, we hope these comments give you some ways to think about your town's code enforcement policies.

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Code Enforcement is destroying our small towns
by: Anonymous

It's a strange world where renovating or improving your property gets you violations. I literally feel like I live in crazytown. Neighbors are encouraged to report on each other for picayune or imagined things. Nothing but distrust in our area. Couldn't be more wrong. Makes me sad.

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Code Enforcement is out of control!
by: Anonymous

The definition of the Code Enforcement Department in Volusia County FL is that it was developed for "Run Down, Blighted, and Dilapidated property." How did it get so far off track? It's to the point now, with so many Code Officers calling the shots based on their personal whims, that people are moving from areas with such oppressive code enforcement.

Some home owners are starting to fight back for their rights to live peacefully without the fear that if they are running late getting home from work, and their garbage can is still on the curb at 7pm, that a neighbor will be calling to report them. Who wants to live like that? And I am referring to homeowners that take great pride in their homes and yards. But if you are seen, painting, planting, or making an improvement of your home, you can almost be guaranteed a visit from Code Enforcement to check up on you.

It's really gotten out of control and needs to somehow be brought back to its original intent. Where are the attorneys that are willing to take on a city? We are fed up!

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Code enforcement
by: Anonymous

Our town of Granby,NY didn't want to take my complaint because I wasn't a homeowner. I've really never heard of such a thing. Have you?

Editors Reply:Actually we haven't heard of this kind of policy, but towns do make their own informal policies about how complaints are handled. To be practical, it may be best to find another neighbor who can make the complaint. Then also raise the question at a town meeting. If you know any of the town council, or equivalent body, ask them to come look at the object of your complaint, and then hopefully they will handle it from there.

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Violators and whiners
by: Anonymous

It appears to me that the majority of the folks whining here don't like following rules. NO ONE wants to look at your junk no matter whether it is pleasing to you, or is your own property. And we for sure are not jealous if you have 12 cars, just shaking our heads as to why. Have respect for others and if not, move out of the country to somewhere where junky yards and streets are the norm.

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confused
by: Anonymous

I live in a small town in Pennsylvania. Our local Government is very small but we do a dedicated Code Enforcement office with one FT Code officer that has a title of Zoning officer and calls himself a Ordinance officer? Exactly. So I pulled up our yearly budget and his title is Code nothing else, I was wondering what kind of Ordinances he would be able to enforce if any, also would he be able to enforce zoning. I tried to make that as simple as possible because it is a complicated situation. Thank you for your help.

Editors Reply: In smaller towns it is very common for one officer to deal with both code matters, such as tall grass or junk cars, and with zoning enforcement. A title of just Code is interesting, but the title would tell us nothing about which codes he is in charge of enforcing. If there is no other city employee in charge of zoning, it would be very likely that the code enforcement officer also deals with zoning-related citations. For a definite answer you have to ask the town government of course, since practices vary widely.

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Private Neighborhoods Should be Exempt from Lower Code Violations !!
by: Anonymous

I live in a private neighborhood in a rural area in Marion County, Florida. Our neighborhood backs up to the National Forest. And the "County" does NOT maintain our streets or pick up our garbage. They only come when called.

We've already been to criminal court and won. Judge says The Forest Department or ANY law enforcement CAN'T cut thru our neighborhood to get to the forest behind us.

But this doesn't seem to stop CODE ENFORCEMENT!! I currently have a "Violation" open with them. According to "Code" I have too much debris in my yard. Now I will admit that I have a lot of "stuff" in my yard! I own 12 vehicles (all have tags and run). And I have more "stuff" than probably anyone in my neighborhood. This makes some people jealous. So they call code enforcement on me.

My main question is, HOW can Code travel over a MILE from the County maintained road, to write me up for "Debris and whatever" when we live in a PRIVATE Neighborhood? This should be a "Neighborhood" issue!

We don't have ANY "Neighborhood Rules" or HOAs. Technically these roads haven't been updated on the maps since 1971! And Code does NOT enforce any road complaints because we tried several months ago when a neighbor blocked a road! Mostly it's a "live and let live" neighborhood except for a couple of "nosey" neighbors that don't have a life!

Am I thinking wrong? Does "Code" have right to our PRIVATE roads and Neighborhood?

Editors Comment: The answer to your question depends on the way the county has written the ordinance by which they adopted the code or codes in effect. The mere facts that your roads are privately maintained and that you handle your own garbage do not mean that you are exempt from following property maintenance and nuisance codes. In fact, it would be more typical that everyone in the county would need to follow the codes, but again, we could not know without reading your ordinance that adopted the code.

As to your point about jealous neighbors calling code enforcement, it is entirely possible that the motivations of those who complain aren't very honorable. But again that really does not mean that you do not have to comply.

So our suggestion would be that you call this situation to the attention of your elected officials and ask if they think you are being treated fairly. It does sound as though the county is not being helpful to your neighborhood, but are eager to investigate code complaints.

Since you say that your many vehicles all are licensed, you may be able to win lenient treatment for your other "stuff" from a sympathetic judge. Being cited for a code violation does not automatically mean that the county will win in court; indeed county and municipal judges often are much more sympathetic to the way ordinary people live than are the code inspectors.

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Law applied to only one citizen.
by: Goldnwolf

Here in St Pete, Florida I have an interesting situation. There is an "unimproved alley" that runs along (the long way)the middle of our rectangular block. It has never been used as an alley but the telephone poles and thus electric, cable etc. wires run down it. Over the years, since the City has never marked the borders nor used this as an actual alley , it has grown into trees, lawns, etc. So residents here have just assumed it was their property and have erected fences, sheds etc. in what is technically the alley. Many of these structures are over 50 years old , so nobody has done this knowing it was an alley. Now a new Code Officer comes along and tells me the fence I have had there for 10 years (and through 4 other code officers , including a supervisor), is in violation and must be removed. He IS correct, the code is quite specific. But , after I complained, the City still is only making ME remove my fence, but nobody else. The other fences circumstances are identical to mine. Is this legal? What options do I have to stop them from singling out me?

Editors Reply: Your situation is much like the person who is arrested for speeding when others are passing him or her. In that example, both parties are violating the law and one is caught.

Yet your situation is much more sympathetic, due to the length of time that the alley has been ignored. We have two suggestions, depending on how valuable your fence is to you.

First, you should start working with your elected officials to request that the city take a legal action called abandoning the alley. Get together with your neighbors to make sure people are willing to grant utility easements allowing utility companies or departments access as needed. So ask them to abandon the alley but establish easements if need be. Explain the history of non-enforcement and of people erecting structures. Also mention in a casual way that you are the only one where the city is pursuing enforcement.

Elected official here means your city councilperson if he or she is elected on the basis of geography. If council people are elected citywide, contact one that you know or one who is most receptive to talking with citizens. In that case you may need to talk with the mayor also.

A second suggestion is more of a long shot. You could ask an attorney licensed in your state about whether rights-of-way (which would include alleys) are considered abandoned after a certain period of non-use. This happens in a few states. You could also ask about whether adverse possession applies to city-owned property. Adverse possession theory applies in a few states to situations in which one property owner does not use or take care of a property, and an adjacent property owner does. The adjacent property owner can then become an owner after a certain period of years. We think this is a long shot, but depending on whether you have access to a free attorney or how valuable your fence is, it may be an option for you.

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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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