How far can the city go in forcing citizens to obey codes?
Last Updated: August 7, 2020
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.