Property Maintenance Code Enters The Limelight At Council And Advisory Board Meetings



Los Alamos County Council is slated to hear a briefing at its Tuesday evening virtual meeting from Aaron Walker, chair of the Community Development Advisory Board.  The board was established to make recommendations to Council regarding the development, implementation, and enforcement of County property maintenance codes within the corporate boundaries of the County.

Members of the CDAB are Walker, Catherine Ozment, Denise Derkacs, Anna Dillane, John Gustafson, Jaime Kennedy and Andrea Pistone. Walker and Derkacs are candidates for County Council in the November general election.

At the CDAB meeting last week, Councilor James Robinson presented what he called a path forward for the board. He noted that as he was revisiting old CDAB meeting minutes, letters to the editor, comments on Facebook and reasons for the CDAB being created, two very big issues became clear.

“One is that Chapter 18 of the County Code is fairly vague. As you all probably know there are some areas that are left up to interpretation that probably don’t need to be and that just creates confusion not only for our citizens that are trying to interpret the code and why they might have gotten a friendly letter of notice of violation, but also the enforcers who have been asked to enforce that code and don’t really have clear guidance on the reasons behind that provision,” Robinson said.

He added that subsequently, from conversations he has had, it seems that Council has failed to provide a clear direction for the CDAB or the Community Development Department. Robinson is the Council liaison to the CDAB.

“We’ve never told you guys what level of enforcement to gear towards. We just say, ‘Go and enforce this code,’ but we’ve never specifically told you, based on our conversations with citizens or through various surveys, what level of enforcement the community is looking to get out of their nuisance enforcers,” Robinson said.

He said the top level recommendation that he came across was that Council decide as a motion or as a body that to task the CDD with enforcing the Chapter 18 code as reflected in a community survey where half the respondents indicated that they felt the level of residential code enforcement being enforced at that time should be maintained and only about 18 of that 59 felt it should be increased.

“I interpreted that to mean that the level we are currently enforcing is the level we should plan our efforts to, our policies, our procedures – let’s keep it at that level. We only had very few that believed it needs to be increased beyond what we’re already doing. That’s the first recommendation because to me that sets up the goalpost for the CDD to plan its efforts in enforcing this code,” Robinson said.

He said among the short term ideas for a path forward are the revamping of Chapter 18 which is already in the works and that the CDAB has already gathered a lot of information that can be used by the consultant that will be working on the revision if the request for proposals is approved by Council.

Robinson suggested that the code be prioritized to health and safety factors with aesthetics and property values being less important, which he noted is a common concern he has heard from people. He said he has found through his research some departments that utilize a visual code that has pictures of what would be declared a public nuisance, so that people can look up an example to explain what is being said when they receive a letter from code enforcement. The visual code would also give code enforcement a visual representation of what the code should be used for, Robinson said.

Robinson noted that clear definitions of outside storage are important as well as a way to address what would be determined a weed. He said the CDAB can find out from the consultant how to build sentencing guidelines into the code that escalate to the general penalty for violations because the code currently ramps up to the general municipal court penalty of a $500 fine or 90 days in jail.

Robinson’s path forward suggestions also include developing robust training for inspectors as well as outreach and education tools for when the revised code is rolled out.

Two of his three to five years long-term proposals were not as well received by the CDAB board as many of the others. One was developing a property condition survey to determine the unique nature and condition of each neighborhood in the County. The second was transferring Chapter 18 from criminal court to civil court which would require the establishment of a civil court and the hiring people to manage and staff it. That would also require a quasi-judicial board to determine court rules and sentencing guidelines and would not wiggle room for sentencing as there would only be monetary fines assessed. There was also discussion of whether Los Alamos Police Department might be better equipped to handle the process

CDAB board members discussed their various opinions with Robinson following his presentation and he agreed to incorporate their suggestions into his plan and re-present them at the next CDAB meeting.

Tuesday night’s Council meeting will include the vote on the scope of work for the RFP for consulting services to evaluate and update Chapter 18, the County Property Maintenance Code which will cost some $50,000.

Among the deliverables are:

  • Review and do an analysis of three property violation types which have received most public attention: weeds, outdoor storage, and inoperable vehicles. Note: Inoperable vehicles is currently in Chapter 16.
  • General clean-up of Chapter 18 code subsections:
  • Identify any language which is unclear, inconsistent within or between code sections, including duplication and redundancies.
  • Provide user-friendly language as needed for compliance requirements, procedures, standards, and definitions. Include code cross-referencing and jurisdictional responsibilities, and comprehensive index.
  • Design code sections within a logical framework with format conducive to inserting amendments.
  • Recommendations for innovative and best practice methods for achieving code compliance. Practical user information on how to meet compliance. Comparative analysis of other communities’ compliance programs including clean and lien programs for vacant properties, successes and lessons learned. Recommendations should consider expectations of the Los Alamos community and the County Council.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Walker is expected to discuss the accomplishments of the CDAB in the last fiscal year but also some of the issues that hindered the board’s progress such as lack of board members, lack of clear direction from Council, varying answers from CDD and unequal code enforcement throughout the County.

To see background documents for the discussion of the CDAB items see here.