New rules adopted for responding to property complaints

The Pierce County Council on Tuesday adopted stricter standards and streamlined enforcement for dealing with blighted properties.

The new regulations provide a tool for the county to respond to foreclosed and abandoned homes that the public complains are a nuisance.

The council unanimously approved the regulations after an hour of discussion focusing on two amendments from Councilman Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor.

One change is that lots must be free of grass, weeds and other plant growth more than 24 inches tall within 100 feet of any structure on a property.

Two citizens voiced concerns the limit could be applied to trees and native vegetation. But council and staff members said that wasn’t the intent. The language was clarified to exempt “trees, maintained shrubbery and other maintained ornamental landscaping in excess of 24 inches in height.”

The council did not require foreclosed homes to be registered, even though it initially approved the idea of a registry along with tougher maintenance requirements 11 months ago.

Flemming’s other amendment requested Planning and Land Services to submit a written report to the council no later than Oct. 1. It will include a list of code enforcement actions started under the new restrictions and how many of those actions targeted foreclosed properties.

Councilman Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, objected that requiring staff members to determine whether properties are in foreclosure would take away from their time enforcing these changes.

But Flemming said the report would give the county a better idea of “what these abandoned and blighted properties are.”

The other council members agreed, overriding Talbert in a 6-1 vote.

Flemming spearheaded the addition of tougher standards and a foreclosure registry back in March to deal with abandoned homes turning into eyesores. But County Executive Pat McCarthy opposed a registry, saying it would be too costly and wouldn’t include vacant homes that don’t reach foreclosure.

She supported adding standards contained in a document called the International Property Maintenance Code, which were adopted. For example, buildings covered with graffiti are not currently a violation of county code, but now will be.

The ordinance also reduces by half – to 92 days from 185 days – the time from when the county receives a complaint to when it can seek court action against a property deemed out of compliance.

Several zoning violations — such as using cargo containers for temporary storage — will be subject to civil infractions without going to court.

Violators will be subject to penalties not to exceed $1,000. The changes take effect April 1 and apply to residential and commercial properties.

Flemming said he was pleased with the final product.

“We will have standards,” he said. “It has not been an easy undertaking.”