How to Get City to Enforce Ordinance

Visitor Question: The City where I live has a definite zoning ordinance (Code 82.15) that states commercial vehicles are not to be parked in residential areas. There is a 25' towing truck parked in the driveway directly next door to me. Its exhaust fumes, which are directly next to my bedroom, have caused me to move into another room to sleep for health reasons. I have reported this to the City, but nothing has been done. Any suggestions?

Editors Reply: Thank you for the great zoning question. In this situation, you definitely need to continue to escalate your reporting and requests for action until something is done.

Yet we have to emphasize that this does not mean displaying anger or name calling. Remain civil and businesslike, and expect your city representatives to do the same.

Our approach would be to report it yet again to the same person in the same way. Maybe he or she will get tired of you calling and eventually get around to taking action. Show empathy for that person too, because he or she may have received a subtle or not so subtle message that your city does not want to be seen as aggressive in zoning enforcement. But if you continue to call, that person may at least talk to a supervisor to raise the possibility that something should be done.

While we assume that you are dealing with a city staff person, we would suggest that at the same time, you start talking with elected officials. If you have a ward-based, geographic system of electing your city council (or whatever it may be called in your location), talk first to that representative if you haven't.

Where city council persons are elected "at large," meaning there is no geographic restriction on where each elected person lives, it becomes a little more complex. In that case, approach a council person who is visible, vocal, and not afraid to take a stand. If you are personally acquainted with a council member, that is a good place to start also.

Depending on how much faith you have in the elected council person, you may decide to go to the mayor (or equivalent) right away also. Often in very small cities council people defer to the mayor on many decisions and complaints from taxpayers like you.

When talking to elected officials, emphasize just two points. First, they have a law passed by a previous city council, and they should want to enforce it. After all, they would like subsequent city councils to insist on enforcing laws that they pass.

Second, you have followed the process by reporting this obvious zoning violation to city staff. Yet action has not been taken, and you have a right as a citizen to understand why this is happening. Don't be overly critical of the staff member when you talk to a city council person or mayor, because after all, they may be friends. But do give the facts about when you called and what has happened as a result--in this case, nothing.

Ask the elected official to investigate and report back to you, and ask them when they would be able to let you know what they find. This gives you an excuse to contact the elected official again if they too fail to report back to you.

Be sure to take photographs of the tow truck at various times of day and in various weather conditions, so that city staff and officials understand that this is not an isolated instance of the tow truck being in the driveway once. It is remotely possible that the inspector followed up on your complaint, did not see the tow truck in the driveway at that time, and therefore felt that he or she could not act to enforce the zoning ordinance properly.

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A Government Agency is Immune
by: Anonymous

IC 34-13-3-3. Immunity of governmental entity or employee
IC 34-13-3-3 Immunity of governmental entity or employee
Sec. 3. A governmental entity or an employee acting within the scope of the employee's employment is not liable if a loss results from the following:
(8) The adoption and enforcement of or failure to adopt or enforce:
(A) a law (including rules and regulations); or
(B) in the case of a public school or charter school, a policy;

Editors Comment: Yes, your quote reinforces what we often say. Code enforcement officers don't have liability for failure to enforce laws.

Blighted properties in Jasonville, Indiana
by: Anonymous

I agree that persistence usually prevails when you are trying to solve a community problem. However, I have been addressing this problem with the City Council and the previous mayor for about ten years now to no avail.

You mentioned code enforcement but Greene County, Indiana has no code enforcement officers. It is up to the County Commissioners to address issues in the unincorporated areas of the county and to the city and town officials in the incorporated areas.

Some of the towns like Worthington are willing to address safety issues but the City Clerk in Jasonville just tells the council members and the mayor that there is no room in the city budget for anything other than operating expenses.

Ironically, the City of Jasonville has the second highest tax rate in the county. The reason is because Assessed Values of real property are so low due to the condition of the neighborhoods. There is only one other property in my addition that is maintained at all. The rest are severely neglected and uninhabitable including several with gaping holes in their roofs.

This problem is not going to be resolved until something catastrophic happens. Several years ago, a limb from a dead tree on city property fell on my truck destroying my camper shell. My insurance company reimbursed me for my damages but the insurance company declined to subrogated their claim to attempt to recover their loss from the city because I didn't have proof (letters or audio recordings) of my notices to the city that their tree presented a hazard to my property. What a travesty of justice!

Blighted properties in Jasonville, Indiana
by: Anonymous

Thank you for your suggestions. Unfortunately, a media blitz is not practical in this semi-rural area because the media is also beholden to the local politicians who are the root cause of the problem. In fact, I met in the newspaper office with the local newspaper editor and the County Commissioner who created part of the problem. The County Commissioner told the newspaper editor in front of me that he would tell her what she could write about the problem!

Editors Comment: Then you will have to choose something else from the menu of options. There is a high probability that many residents feel just as you do, but in a semi-rural situation, they are often too polite to want to get involved. The key is to help people realize that many others have the same perspective, but that is much more easily said than done in your type of setting. All we can say is that persistence usually chips away at resistance to code enforcement.

Blighted and neglected properties
by: Anonymous

I have a very similar problem with blighted and neglected properties in Jasonville, Indiana where I own property but do not reside permanently. The city has an Unsafe Building ordinance and an Unsafe Building fund.

However, despite numerous complaints to the City Council, this ordinance is not being enforced. Part of the problem is the fact that many of these blighted properties are owned by local politicians who can influence the city's Fire Department, the department authorized to administer the city's Unsafe Building Law.

Do you have any suggestions for what property owners can do about this problem?

Editors Comment: Your only practical recourse in a situation like this is to band together with other concerned citizens and start making noise about this through social media, traditional media, and maybe even a petition drive. If it is serious enough, you may want a temporary organization with a snappy name and T-shirts. Raise awareness and don't hesitate to embarrass office holders if that is what the facts demand. Just don't be nasty about it; remain factual.

Someone might say you should sue, but it is likely that you would not have "standing," as it is called in legal circles. If you own adjoining property, that might work, but if you are suffering at a distance, that is a very unlikely path.

Another city ordinance not enforced
by: Anonymous

The city of Prattville, Alabama passed an ordinance in February 1995 to put a 10 foot private fence across the side of our street. They have refused to enforce this. What can be done?

Editors Comment Again, you will have to organize with your neighbors and take this issue to your city council. Ask your own city council representative (if they are chosen geographically in Prattville) why there is no enforcement. Be ready with all of the reasons that you want this law enforced. Current representatives may not be aware of the issues involved. Ask them to come out on site with you to see the need.

See the many articles on this website that touch on preparation for this. Even though your issue is not zoning, you might want to read our opposing a rezoning for some useful tips about getting ready to appear before a city council or commission.

City still fails to enforce ordinances
by: Anonymous

There are many blighted and neglected properties in the small city where I own property. This has severely depressed the value of my property.

I have contacted the mayor, the city council, and the Board of Public Works, all to no avail. I just keep getting the excuse that the city does not have any money to enforce their Unsafe Building and Neglected Property ordinances.

The Unsafe Building ordinance includes a provision for an Unsafe Building fund but apparently there is no means to transfer any money into this fund. What more can I do about this problem?

Editors Comment: You are going to have to organize with your fellow property owners to let the elected officials know that the current state of affairs is just unacceptable. An unsafe building that is allowed to deteriorate to the point of collapse is a legal liability for the property owner and potentially for a city government that does not enforce its ordinances.

Set up a meeting for you and other property owners to discuss this problem with the city attorney. Start sending letters to the city about each property that seems unsafe, and send a copy to the city attorney.

Also you might ask any local planners or university extension people that live in your area if there are any state laws or county or state resources that could be used to start to address the situation.

While enforcement does take some resources, such as having a qualified inspector, the expense involved is relatively small when compared to loss of property value and tax base in a deteriorating city. Perhaps they are thinking they would have to condemn each unsafe building, and it is true that legal expenses for the condemnation process can mount up. But you are well within your rights to insist on better explanations and more action.

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