A Code For Someplace Special

Code enforcement officer Cindy Sommer

 

Some think Mount Dora needs stricter code enforcement. Here’s how it currently works

Council recently requested a review of Mount Dora’s code enforcement policies, so police chief O’Grady appeared before that body at their June 6 meeting with a Powerpoint presentation showing how the department has been managing the function since 2002.

Right now about half the enforcement cases are opened by citizen complaints, the other half initiated by the code enforcement officer or other city employee canvassing the community.

The reason for the review became apparent when several members of council expressed dissatisfaction. Councilwoman Tillett (First district) wanted more teeth in enforcement—“We don’t want to be a Gestapo force going out there, but we also need to enforce the codes we have.” She also suggested hiring an outside contractor to help the department catch up with what she believed was a backlog of cases.

Councilman Ed Rowlett (Third district) said he’d heard complaints from constituents about lingering code violations and wanted swifter justice: “I want to know how long you have to wait before you wield a hammer,” he said.

Councilman Slaby (at-large) said the current complaint-compliance balance puts way too much burden on citizens. Instead, he wants a 10-90 percent mix of cases based on citizen complaints versus ones filed as a result of canvassing by code enforcement. He also suggested that more money could be found in the budget to provide more staffing to handle the increased compliance workload. “People have said that our city doesn’t look as pretty as it should, and it seems to me that this is an avenue that will do that,” he said.

Chief O’Grady responded that he not see a city of Mount Dora’s size needing an enlarged code enforcement department. First of all, he saw no evidence of increased complaint volume that justified adding more staff. Second, he said that if council were to “give code enforcement its own house”—beefing up the department— the city is “creating something that wasn’t intended” by the code in the first place. “If we have people [officers] out there looking for violations, we’re picking a fight.” He added that while there are communities around town with homeowners associations who make specific requirements on their property owners, not all who choose to live in other sections of Mount Dora subscribe to those standards and they shouldn’t be held to them.

Obviously there’s a balance between complaint- versus compliance-driven code enforcement, but what’s the correct mix? Does the code need more enforcement? More boots on the ground? Should the code itself be revised—and for whose sake?

It became clear at the June 6 meeting that public awareness of the code is lacking. Ms. Tillett was apparently not aware that while parkways (the area of properties between sidewalks and streets) belong to the city, it is up to property owners—and renters—to keep those areas properly landscaped.

To find out more about code enforcement and how it presently works in Mount Dora, the Mount Dora Citizen recently rode along with Cindy Sommer, the city’s only full-time enforcement officer.  (She gets support from detectives Patricia Thomas and Daryl McCormick.)

Following up on a complaint that yard trash might be a fire hazard, Sommer writes up a notice of violation. About half the enforcement cases are opened by citizen complaint.
Following up on a complaint that yard trash might be a fire hazard, Sommer writes up a notice of violation. About half the enforcement cases are opened by citizen complaint.

Sommer’s been on the job for ten years, and she’s a member of the Florida Association for Code Enforcement (FACE). There are five levels of qualification, and Sommer is at level four.

Meeting in her office, Sommer gave me the basics of code enforcement, echoing Chief O’Grady’s presentation.

Under Chapter 162 of Florida State Statutes, code compliance is substantially voluntary and civil in nature. What that means is that code enforcement has no powers of arrest and limited power to levy fines and issue citations. Under civil law, authorities cannot enter a private property unless the owner grants the right of entry. However, authorities may execute administrative search warrants and court orders during certain life, safety and welfare violations.

In 2006, the city adopted the International Property Maintenance Code; before that, it followed the Land Development code and city ordinances. Since adopting the IPMC, there has been little derivation. (One notable exception is that city now prohibits parking on grass.)

These types of codes are commonly enforced by code enforcement:

  • Unsafe or dilapidated structures
  • Improper parking of boats, trailers and recreational vehicles
  • Junk & debris
  • Disabled, unregistered and/or abandoned vehicles
  • Overgrown vegetation
  • Signs, banners and advertisements
  • Parking on lawns
  • Health, safety and welfare violations
  • Property maintenance violations
  • Yard sales (a $5 permit is required)
  • Vegetation growing onto sidewalks and roadways
  • Landlord/tenant complaints
  • Water complaints

Code enforcement also monitors foreclosures, performs sign sweep, records outstanding liens and is present at special events and condemnations.

Construction code enforcement (including permitting for interior and exterior renovations) is handled by the building department, and animal control is handled separately within the police department.

Enforcement is driven both by citizen complaints (the “noisy neighbor”) as well as canvassing of neighborhoods by the code enforcement officer or other city employees. Responses to these complaints are handled three ways. Generally, code enforcement works with property or business owners to remedy the problem, but in some cases they work with people to educate them the city’s building and construction codes. And sometimes complaints simply aren’t violations of the code.

It’s Sommer’s job to determine the correct course and see that the job gets done with the maximum positive impact.

As we drove out—already hot at 9:30 a.m.—Sommer had a list of properties to check, either in response to violation calls or follow-ups to see if the necessary work had been done. All of them were in the First and Second districts.

The first was a response to a typical summer call, where the yard was growing long and there was a pile of brush and limbs back behind the house, next to the fence by the garage—a potential fire hazard, a neighbor had complained.

Sommer says if she can, for minor violations, she tries to meet with the owner or tenant and ask them to remedy the problem. If no one’s home, a courtesy notice of violation is given to the property owner with a small sign that hangs on their door.  This document contains the violation, method of correction and timeframe for compliance. For most violations, ten business days are given to correct the issue. (Serious health and safety violations are required to comply immediately.) She took a picture of the problem—she uses photo evidence to keep track of what gets done—and got out of the truck to post the notice on the front door.

Driving further down the block, Sommer followed up on a complaint about a couch out by the side of the road. She had talked with the owner and he said he would take care of it and on this day we confirmed he had—the couch was gone. (Large collections of yard trash or large pieces like couches will be carted off by city by calling waste management.) Sommer took a picture of the curb where the couch had been, she noted that the complaint had been resolved and we moved on.

Our next stop wasn’t really a code violation complaint: Someone had left a message for her that a neighbor was running his leaf blower at 6 a.m. There is a noise ordinance enforced by police, and though it’s not officially a part of code enforcement, Sommer doesn’t mind handling the up front conversation, which is usually enough. Sure enough, after talking with the resident, he admitted to running his blower—he thought it had been 7 a.m.—and he agreed to be more mindful of the time and his neighbors.

We passed a row of houses in a less affluent neighborhood where parking on the grass was a recurrent problem. However, on this day she saw no violations.

Sommer said that while the complaint-driven process is effective, there are some residents who complain excessively, and sometimes about things that aren’t a violation of the code. On the other hand, there others who are averse to complaining at all. (Complaints can be filed anonymously, though in those cases Sommer isn’t able to follow up with them about the problem or how it got resolved.)

The occupant of this house had been cited for parking on the grass. The situation was remedied by creating a makeshift parking area with mulch and landscape timbers.
The occupant of this house had been cited for parking on the grass. The situation was remedied by creating a makeshift parking area with mulch and landscape timbers.

Discretion is given to code enforcement in resolving violations. For example, a house on Highland had been cited for overgrown vegetation and missing shims on its siding; the yard was cut, the parking area mulched and the shims had been repaired.

She did note that a window was still boarded up (suggesting a broken window). A follow-up call would be needed for the window, but since the occupant was making an attempt to comply, Sommer said she would give them more time.

This was also an example of appearance versus reality, where assumed code violations don’t pan out that way. The house surely could use a coat of paint, though Sommer said that was not a code violation.

“Does it need painting? Yes,” she said. “But is it so bad that it requires a protective coating? No. The person filing the complaint may not like that, but I can’t make them,” adding something Chief O’Grady also said in his presentation to council: “Ugly isn’t a code violation.”

As we drove on, the dispatcher on the police radio announced a call to an address, and Sommer cut off what she was saying to listen in. Although she handles civil cases, Sommer makes herself available when there are accidents if she’s close by, standing in until officers arrive. My ride-along was on the day after the Pulse massacre in Orlando, so calls on the radio seemed a little edgier. Sommer has two sons in Lake County SWAT law enforcement, and the shock of the Orlando shooting was that  awful things could really happen anywhere.

“Probably an alarm,” Sommer said after a moment, and we drove on.

A house on First Avenue with a revolving door of occupants was a longstanding code enforcement problem. Junk had been on the front porch, a fence was leaning and a car parked on the grass. Sommer had worked with the occupants, and on this visit, things were looking okay.  She noted that things had been cleaned up and an improvised parking space with landscape timbers and cypress mulch had been created for the truck. She also asked about noise from the truck, which wasn’t quite “street-spec,” as the occupant admitted. Sommer asked him to be mindful of the noise and we drove on. She’d have to continue to keep an eye on the place, as things in the past would get cleaned up and then fall into disarray.  “Some folks just don’t have the same aesthetic when it comes to keeping up their yards,” she said.

Overgrown weeds on the parkway of a rental property. Property occupants are responsible for landscaping these areas, but the city will come out an cut if they can't get the occupant to comply.
Overgrown weeds on the parkway of a rental property. Property occupants are responsible for landscaping these areas, but the city will come out an cut if they can’t get the occupant to comply.

A business had been notified to clean up tires piled helter-skelter behind the building, but Sommer noted they still were there. She took a picture and said that in this case a notice of violation would need to be mailed to the owner, giving them 10 days to clean up.  She had talked with the owner several times before and had heard his beef. “He complained to me about downtown types telling him how to run his business,” Sommer says. “He’s certainly has a right to his opinion, but the code is the code. He’s going to have to address the violation.”

She added that if the violation is not corrected or it appears again, she would send an official Notice of Violation. What follows from there is a bit of a dance. Discretion is used when deciding how to move forward with a violation that has re-occurred.  If a re-inspection is done on a property after a courtesy notice is left and the violation has not been corrected, an official Notice of Violation letter is sent by certified and USPS mail to the property owner.  In most circumstances, another ten days is given to comply, however, this number can be changed as circumstances require.

Driving on to the Northeast community, a vacant lot behind some apartment buildings was way overgrown with piles of yard trash heaped throughout. Sommer said she had notified the owner—informally, but then again by mail when nothing was getting done—and still nothing had been done. At this point, an official Notice of Hearing would be sent to the owner and the case is then scheduled for the next Magistrate Hearing. Hearings are scheduled on an as-needed basis.

At these hearings, the city attorney presents cases and Code Enforcement and/or witnesses give testimony. The property owner is given an opportunity to respond and/or present evidence. The magistrate makes a determination and issues an order. If violations have been corrected after the Notice of Hearing is sent, the magistrate may issue a “finding of guilt.” If the same violation occurs within five years of the hearing, fines on the property may immediately begin to accrue.

If still not in compliance, the magistrate may issue orders to comply, the time frame for compliance, and the amount of fines. Fines up to $250 per day may be assessed from the date the magistrate orders mandatory compliance.

If the property remains out of compliance after magistrate orders, code enforcement then schedules the violator for another Magistrate Hearing for an imposition of fines. If the property is then brought into compliance, the magistrate will determine the final fine.

Start to finish, the worst code enforcement cases can take as long as seven months to resolve. It’s a tedious process, Sommer says, but because code enforcement is civil in nature and largely voluntary in participation, property owners have to be given every opportunity to comply.

Sommer places a notice of violation on a resident's door.
Sommer places a notice of violation on a resident’s door.

A rental house in the Northeast community next to the middle school was probably the worst offender of all we saw that day. (According to Chief O’Grady, rental properties present the most code enforcement work).  A couch was standing up on the front porch and eviction notices were taped to the front door. There was yard trash stacked everywhere, and inside, Sommer told me there was water everywhere on the floor—even feces—and the tub in the bathroom had collapsed through the floor.

Sommer didn’t fault the owners of this property in this case, but she said that she deals with a lot of code enforcement problems that end up as a fight between owners and renters. One says the other is negligent with the property; the renters complain the landlord hasn’t fixed problems, while the landlord says that the renters created them.

A rental property ordinance passed in 2008 that says rentals have to be inspected every three years. The process is initiated when new renters come in to pay their utility deposits; landlords have to pay a $50 inspection fee. Sommer says that sometimes landlords avoid the inspection by keeping the utilities in their name. This works until tenants, unhappy with conditions in their residences, refuse to pay their landlords for utilities, and then landlords are stuck with the bill.

In this case, the tenant had been evicted and the owner was considering whether it was worth repairing the building.  Indeed, some houses are in such disrepair code enforcement deems them unlivable.  Sommer estimates that in her tenure some 46 houses around the city have been condemned and demolished.

Sommer can look in properties is when search warrants have been issued, usually for drugs. Sommer has a window after the search to get in and have a look around.

* * *

It was clear from our rounds that code enforcement is a much greater issue in the First and Second districts (on the east side of Donnelly) where there are many more older homes and owners often have much more limited resources for addressing problems. Sommer said one thing she was proud of in her ten years on the job was in how many houses in the Northeast community had been brought closer to compliance with the code.

But tall grass, junk cars and other violations of the code can appear anywhere in the city. And as Lauren Ritchie recently reported, city council is not immune.

Overgrown grass and yard trash are a problem all around Mount Dora
Overgrown grass and yard trash are a problem all around Mount Dora

In communities where there are homeowners associations—the Country Club or Lakes of Mount Dora, for instance—owners have a much higher bar of responsibility in keeping up their properties.  Yet even there, code issues can crop up. One was a real doozy.

A few years back, someone in the Lakes of Mount Dora filed a complaint with code enforcement about a neighbor replacing a dead oak tree with a palm, and so Sommer came out. In the course of her investigation, she discovered that the site plan (a city ordinance) for the development specifies that all owners are supposed to have live oak trees in their yards. Many were found to have palm trees and Sommer ended up citing 90 homes for the violation. It took almost two years to get everyone into compliance.

“Sometimes you have to be careful about what you wish for–or complain about,” she says.

Since then, the site plan for the development has been amended to include a variety of canopy trees, not just live oaks.

What about code enforcement downtown? According to Sommer, most code complaints there have to do with inappropriately placed signage. Signs advertising a business have, in the past, been required to be adjacent to it.  (That law is under scrutiny due to a Supreme Court case called Reed v. Gilbert, in which the Court favored freedom of speech over sign regulation.)  One unresolved issue has to do with a holiday greeting from a downtown property owner, on behalf of its tenants, placed by the company at the corner of Fifth and Alexander.  Apparently the dispute—which has never been fully resolved—is whether the sign is considered adjacent as specified by the code, or if a holiday greeting is even a “sign.”

For all the negatives she has to deal with, sometimes a conversation Sommer starts opens unforseen door to opportunity. A different downtown business had a landscaping problem which was easily resolved by talking to the office manager of the business. While they were talking, the parking lot for the business was brought up; previously it was cordoned off (and empty) during events, but Sommer convinced the office manager to talk with the city about making it available to merchants.

* * *

Does the city need more code enforcement? That was the opinion of several council members at the June 6 meeting. The ideal expressed by Mark Slaby was one that “when people drive around town, they never see a problem that needs to be addressed.”

But how real is the problem?  The Citizen e-mailed Mark Slaby, Laurie Tillett and Ed Rowlett and asked them to give evidence that there was a backlog of code enforcement cases. We requested specific data about call volume and pending cases. Rowlett was the only one of the three to respond. He wrote,

… These Code issues have been brought to my attention by citizens and business owners. Code issues include overgrown yards, repetitive overgrown vacant property, a dump on Boat House Row, repetitive non-compliance with building permits, trash and repetitive issues with non-compliant signage. As in the past the city will provide FOIA info to your blog. I would appreciate if you would use the FACTS as they are. It is ALL public record, for all to see.

That’s hardly specific enough to give justification to their case. Until they do, perception versus reality is a major issue in their argument.

Laurie Tillett took issue with the word “discretion” in code enforcement, calling the current procedure “a vacuous approach.” She wondered if city attorney Groot should determine whether the codes could be tightened up, leaving less wriggle room for violators. “We don’t want our property values lowered because someone isn’t keeping up their property,” she said.

New city attorney Lonnie Groot has been looking at other elements of the city’s ordinances and charter, apparently looking to strengthen the powers of the mayor and council. He’s also suggested making the city clerk report to council and is recommending a review of purchasing procedures. Groot may even already be at work reviewing enforcement policies in the city’s ordinances.

Already in his short tenure the new city attorney is asserting an aggressive position in City Hall.  As he recently noted to council on another matter, “I am a pro active legal counsel. I believe in teamwork and preventative law. I believe that the City of Mount Dora will need sophisticated and pro active legal counsel as it faces the challenges of growth that are very likely coming its way.”

It will be interesting to see if council does act to bring in outside resources to address code enforcement. For all the superlatives council has lauded upon city staff in recent meeting, distrust and tension continues to characterize their relations with city staff. Staffing shortages have not been resolved, key management positions remain open, and council comments reveal an unceasing desire to “fix” city government.  Where this is coming from, we can only guess.

That said, council was not unanimous in their concern about code enforcement. Cal Rolfson (Second district) was mystified why council was having the discussion at all—to him the process didn’t seem broken.  “I don’t see a problem with them exercising discretionary powers,” he said. The  only reason he could see for show-and-tells like this one is that they provide council with “an education in the complexities of running a city”—adding that other departments should be brought before council for the same purpose.

To close out the discussion, Interim City Manager Leinbach suggested that if council had significant issues with present code enforcement practices, that they might address it during their upcoming goal setting meeting where they could “see this as one of many priorities and determine what the balance is.”

* * *

Repeatedly at council we hear about Mount Dora’s reputation of Someplace Special. It’s become the city’s motto, and supposedly distinguishes itself from many of its central Florida neighbors. But Mount Dora is also a small city of 13,000—smaller than Eustis or Tavares—and comes with the same motley composition of old and newer neighborhoods and widely varied economic standing as its municipal neighbors.

And while the fasting-growing demographic in Mount Dora is households making over $200,000, the city still has a growing poverty rate—17% in 2014.

A one-size-fits-all code enforcement approach might make it more in sync with aesthetic standards (and yes, help home values), but neither is there agreement what those standards might be (remember the debate over public art?) nor how enforceable they could or even should be.  People live in Mount Dora for all sorts of reasons, and not all agree what their chosen city should look like.

The city’s property code has work for all its residents. That’s something Cindy Sommer said in relation to her job. “We cater to all our people in the city,” she told me. “Not just me, but all of the police, city employees, public works. We all serve the public.”

And for that reason, perhaps the motto “Someplace Special” can only be vision, not a rule.

If you see what you think is a code violation in your neighborhood, call Cindy Sommer in code enforcement at (352) 735-7127.

David Cohea, Writer (david@mountdoracitizen.com)