Analysis Of Proposed Changes To Nuisance Code (Chapter 18)

Los Alamos

Urban planning consultant DPS has issued a draft of a new nuisance code.  This is a long overdue revision of the nuisance code that was put in place years ago in a well-meant effort to deal with the never-ending problems of junk cars and unkempt or abandoned houses, and happily the new code eliminates many of the gross problems of the old one.  Unfortunately, in spite of many years working in our little town, DPS still doesn’t quite get it about Los Alamos. 

The new code seeks to impose standards and rules on the old neighborhoods and housing stock of Los Alamos that have been developed for new construction in an urban setting, and that in many instances will require expensive changes to existing homes and lots and prohibit  the many ways people have come to use their property to compensate for the deficiencies of the Army/AEC designs, their under-sized lots, and the peculiar ways the old neighborhoods (Eastern Area, Downtown, Western Area, Sleepy Hollow, Denver Steels) were shoe-horned into a municipal housing code ex post facto when the AEC gave it all away.

I will spare you the four page single-spaced analysis I submitted to DPS, the County CDD, and the County Council.  Let me briefly describe the chief problems I see.  First, these residences were designed to accommodate at most one car parked in a carport, garage, or driveway, and in many instances with no off-street parking at all.  Many carports and garages have become indoor spaces to accommodate growing families, most residences now have more than one car and so cars are parked in the street or front or side yards.  As their original owners have moved on, these old houses have become either starter homes (now running $300k to $400k to start) or managed as low-income rental property, comprising, with the trailer parks and HUD-subsidized apartments, the only truly affordable housing in our town.  Cash-strapped lower-income people as well as  energetic young scientists do maintenance on their own cars or motorcycles where they can, in the yard, the carport or driveway or the street.  Nobody wants to see a project vehicle parked on the street for two years, but at the same time we shouldn’t make it impossible for people to ease the cost of living in Los Alamos by changing motor oil or fixing a flat tire, or for kids to do hobby work on their first car.  The new code is totally insensitive to this problem and would require all such work to be done in an enclosed garage or behind a fence.  Bad plan!

The AEC deeded to the county what is called a “planting strip,” six or seven feet wide piece of the front yard where they allow the burial of  communications and utilities lines to access the property.  Most people seem to consider it their own property (I did until I took a close look at my plat last year) and

landscape it.  Now the new code will mandate that the owner landscape this county property, prune it, maintain the sidewalks, and don’t put a fence on it.  Not sure what the answer is to this problem but I don’t think the County should be putting the hammer on people for not maintaining county property.

Many houses (mine for example) have carports, where we store stuff and work on our cars.  Now the carport must be kept bare – no storage, no workshop, no maintenance activities.  Or enclosed at a cost of , what , $20,000 and up? Nuts to that!

This is a nuisance code, and the standard for nuisance law is health, safety, and welfare.  Yet this code goes beyond the bounds for nuisance, many of its requirements are based on esthetics, not health safety and welfare.  Nowhere is this more true than in the requirements for maintenance of residences.  For example, at 7000 feet in Los Alamos the UV damage to paint on the southern exposed wooden surfaces of a house is extreme, and the paint begins to peel sometimes months after it is painted.   The code is relentless, it does not provide a reasonable objective standard for how much peeling constitutes a hazard.  A cracked window pane, a stained surface, cracked window glazing – grounds for violation.  There needs to be more thought put into setting reasonable objective standards for determining whether there is a threat to health safety and welfare.  

One cannot rely on the good judgement or discretion of a code inspector: we should have learned that lesson when the County started enforcing the existing code and was issuing notices of violation for minor housekeeping or weeds, the community outrage kept the editors and social media posts flowing for months and resulted in the creation of the Community Development Advisory Board, which eventually led to this new code.  Let’s don’t repeat those mistakes.  Send this back to DPS for more work and direct them to be sensitive to the needs of the older neighborhoods and low-income residents of Los Alamos.