BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Council meeting Tuesday evening at the Municipal Building heard a kick-off presentation on the process to be used for revision of the Property Maintenance Code contained in Chapter 18 of the County Code entitled Environment and commonly known as the Nuisance Code.
Community Development Department Manager Paul Andrus noted that at the end of 2019, Council gave staff feedback on what they wanted to see when the revision process finally came to fruition. He introduced Will Gleason, Jessica Lawlis and Rebecca Longstreet of Dekker/Perich/Sabatini who have been hired to perform the Chapter 18 update.
Andrus said there had been no findings or conclusions at this point and that the consultants had only held an internal meeting with staff. They will meet with the Community Development Advisory Board Monday night, he said. The project is expected to take nine months to complete.
Gleason, in his presentation, said the update is about regulating land use related nuisances such as weeds, brush piles, refuse rubbish as well as outdoor storage and inoperable vehicles.
“What we’re really trying to do here is find the right balance between enforcement and not overburdening either property owners or the County’s ability to manage these types of nuisances. We’re trying to figure out where that line is so that we encourage property owners to maintain their properties and to deal with things like this but also not to use too heavy a hand in terms of enforcement and have clear procedures for how to go about remedying these situations,” Gleason said.
For a lot of this, he said D/P/S we will rely heavily on the County’s Community Development Advisory Board.
“Our process is to do a full diagnosis first, generate multiple ways of getting public input from the steering committee, the website, through a survey that we will draft and distribute, and have public input. I know this will generate some strong interest from the community so we wanted to get your input at the outset and to understand what you are hearing as Councilors in terms of these issues,” he said.
Gleason asked what are the top of mind priorities or concerns about Councilor see, what they see that’s working well and what they would like to see as a result of the code revision process.
Vice Chair James Robinson said that after being liaison to the CDAB last year, a couple of priority areas he would like to see addressed included a graded approach from health and safety down to the more aesthetic level of codes. He suggested that D/P/S gather input on what the public really feels is a nuisance using a technique D/P/S used at downtown master planning sessions where they would show three images and people could pick which one bothered them the most.
Robinson also suggested looking into the pros and cons of a complaint versus the compliant-driven system.
“My main concern is the code tends to be a little vague. It’s hard for citizens to know if they’re compliant or not,” he said.
Councilor Sara Scott concurred that making the code clearer for community members and CDD staff is important.
“Looking at implementation procedures – once we get to where we want to work on that – based on benchmarks and best practices was another thing we had talked about in the past,” she said.
Scott said that while the issues mentioned by Gleason kind of rose to the top in what the CDAB had assessed, she realized D/P/D is going to do more extensive – as CDAB is doing now – community outreach.
“I applaud that and I think that’s an important part of it. I have heard other issues and concerns with for example trees or trash, other things that weren’t those three that you listed. That’s a top list of things folks have heard about but there are more,” she said, adding a suggestion that D/P/D also take a look at statistics in community surveys that have already been completed as well as input received from CDAB members at the Farmer’s Market.
Councilor Denise Derkacs, a former member of the CDAB, said she thinks it’s important to note that the authority for a nuisance code comes from state statutes so that the community understands that Council hasn’t “just made this up on our own”.
“The end product I would like to see is a clearly written nuisance code with many defined terms to minimize misinterpretation and confusions. I would also like to see clear guidance for the enforcement officers to be able to make reasonable judgment calls during inspections because as everyone understands, there is judgment involved,” she said.
In terms of process, Derkacs said she wanted to recognize that CDD has implemented a friendly letter as the first step as opposed to a notice of violation so now the notice of violation follows only if the resident doesn’t respond to the first letter.
“I think that’s a good practice. In terms of needs improvement, I’d like to hear from the consultant how to strike a balance between the complaint-driven and the random inspection driven notices,” she said .
Derkacs noted that the D/P/S contract requires them to look at three communities of similar size and geographic location to Los Alamos but that communities of similar size may be more rural than Los Alamos.
“I think it’s also important to look at some larger communities and I hope the consultant would look at the 80-page package of research that was done (by CDAB members) as a starting point and also as a resource for definitions,” she said, adding that some larger communities have excellent definitions that could be borrowed and adopted.
“I would like to see the consultant explore whether we should have different weed heights for our semi-agricultural areas such as La Senda and Pajarito Acres. Some of the other communities do have different heights for different types of properties,” Derkacs said.
Councilor Sean Williams said his view is that he is a strong believer in the independence of the boards and commissions so he would rather “avoid making any comments at this time and instead have this process really begin with the CDAB”.
Councilor David Izraelevitz suggested that D/P/D look at the specific wording of some of the courtesy notices used for communicating with the community and similar models from other communities of incremental notices.
Chair Randall Ryti noted that the code revision will be a complex process and that he looks forward to getting input from the CDAB and members of the public.
CDAB is slated to meet via Zoom at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, July 19. Information may be found at https://losalamos.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx