Matt Driscoll

Clean up your junk or else: Pierce County beefs up its chronic nuisance response

In 2017, the Pierce County Council sought to make it easier and faster to clean up properties deemed a chronic nuisance.

That meant unanimously passing a new ordinance that added more bodies to code enforcement and mandated an aggressive new objective of resolving reported problems in 90 days, with a goal of voluntary compliance.

On Tuesday, at the request of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, the council revisited the issue to give code enforcement officers and prosecutors more tools to crack down on folks who let their properties go to pot.

While the 2017 ordinance has “been a good tool that we’ve effectively used to gain compliance,” according to Melanie Halsan, deputy director of the county’s Planning and Public Works Department, the idea was to further strengthen the county’s ability to target chronic nuisance properties.

Like the ones 70-year-old Larry Volland is sick and tired of watching fester in the Summit Waller area of unincorporated Pierce County.

Volland describes the move, which was sponsored by Councilman Marty Campbell and unanimously passed on Tuesday, as a “step in the right direction.”

Since 1972, Volland, a retired school teacher, has lived in the Summit Waller area. In 1993, he helped found the Summit Waller Community Association. For the last decade, he’s served as the association’s president.

In recent years, Volland says the number of chronic nuisance properties in and around Summit Wallter has increased significantly. It’s a spike he attributes — at least in part — to the local effects of the national opioid epidemic.

Today, Volland describes nuisance properties as “right up there towards the top” of the Summit Waller Community Association’s primary concerns.

On the ground, Volland says, it means properties with “cars, junk, tires and garbage” accumulating in their yards. It means derelict and abandoned homes, health and human safety concerns, drug houses and properties where homeless encampments or squatters sometimes take root.

These are situations sometimes created, Volland says, by absentee landlords or unresponsive banks, which often control the homes after a foreclosure but do little if anything to maintain them.

“The average citizen just doesn’t like to see these nuisance properties causing problems — with theft, blight and people coming and going at all hours,” Volland says.

Volland says the 2017 ordinance “helped a lot, but we still had concerns about the enforcement end of it, and the penalty end of it.”

Some of the changes approved by the council this week, according to deputy prosecuting attorney Chad Arceneaux, are simply meant to align the 2017 chronic nuisance ordinance with county’s longstanding approach to dealing with public nuisances.

These include clarifying the county’s ability to recoup the often substantial costs associated with cleaning up chronic nuisance issues and the potential for misdemeanor penalties for noncompliance. It also specifies that the remedies included “shall be in addition to, and not in lieu of, other civil or criminal remedies provided by state law and/or the Pierce County Code.”

One change, however, goes beyond mere clarification.

Under the county’s 2017 chronic nuisance ordinance, one of the ways a property earned the designation of ill-fame was when a nuisance activity was observed on three or more occasions during a 60-day period.

Under the newly amended version of the ordinance, that window has been doubled, to 120 days — which could make a big difference.

“Expanding that time period was appropriate in order to allow code enforcement a little more time to get out there,” Arceneaux says.

Already, Arceneaux says, “a lot” of his time is spent dealing with nuisance property cases. In the last four years, Pierce County Prosecutor’s office spokesman Adam Faber says public nuisance cases have increased “significantly,” thanks, “in part to the county portal that allows members of the public to more easily file these complaints.” In 2015, there were 7 such cases referred to the prosecutor’s office. Through May of 2019, there have already been 36.

Arceneaux expects that to continue, and believes the clarifications and additions to the county’s chronic nuisance ordinance will help make the county’s response to these properties even stronger.

Volland agrees, and he’s looking forward to seeing the tougher rules in action. He notes that, at any given time, there are usually three or four active nuisance properties in his neighborhood.

Simply put, that’s too many for any neighborhood in Pierce County to be burdened by.

“Enforcement and penalty-wise, it makes people realize this is a serious issue,” Volland says.

“We’re really happy that there’s a little harsher stick here.”