BY SARA SCOTT
Los Alamos County
I hope this fall finds you well and enjoying the natural beauty and crisp weather here in Los Alamos. In this note I’ll provide some information regarding the status of the Nuisance Code update, key changes being proposed to the code, background information on why this update was undertaken and how the current code has been used in our community.
On November 15, 2022, the Incorporated County of Los Alamos Code Ordinance No. 02-334 was introduced at the County Council meeting. The purpose of this ordinance is to update Chapter 18 Article II of the Los Alamos County Code of Ordinances – most often referred to as the Nuisance Code – which codifies minimum property maintenance standards for county, commercial and residential property within the county. The public hearing regarding this ordinance will be held on November 29, 2022. This is the first comprehensive update to the code since its adoption in 2014. The current draft of the Nuisance Code is available on the project website (https://www.lacchp18update.org/).
Background. This update is the culmination of multiyear community discussions. In 2018 some community members voiced concerns regarding the 2014 version of the Nuisance Code (the original code was approved in 1980). This resulted in multiple County Council agenda items and discussions on this topic and, subsequently, Council establishment of a Community Development Advisory Board (CDAB) which has met since August 2018 to “…make recommendations to county council regarding the development, implementation, and enforcement of county property maintenance codes within the corporate boundaries of the county.” The County also elicited public input on this matter through the 2018 Los Alamos County Community Survey.
In December 2019 Council discussed proceeding with an update of the code to address identified community and CDAB concerns, including repetition, conflicting language, vague language, clarity of intent, top identified issues (e.g., weeds, brush piles, refuse, rubbish, outdoor storage, inoperable vehicles), balance in addressing concerns, and clarification of what is being asked of property owners. A contract to proceed with an update to the Nuisance Code was approved by Council, and the update process began in fall of 2021.
Process. The first phase of the process focused on a technical review of the existing 2014 code. This included a review of current local concerns and a comparison with the 2021 International Property Management Code (https://codes.iccsafe.org/content/IPMC2021P1) and precedents and best practices from other communities. The next phase of the project was development of an updated structure, format and revisions to the technical elements of the code. The current draft of the code was achieved through an iterative process of obtaining public and Council input (received either through public meetings or electronically) and commensurate updates to the draft code. A matrix of comments received and how they were resolved is provided on the project website (lacnm.com/Chptr18-CommentsMatrix). A community survey, Los Alamos County Code Enforcement Survey 2021, focused on nuisance code topics was also commissioned.
During this time, the CDAB continued with community outreach efforts, discussion, and input to the project team on multiple drafts of the updated code. Efforts also included a series of social media posts to introduce the community to the 2014 Nuisance Code, its structure, and topics being addressed by code updates, as well as informal surveys at the Farmer’s Market. The CDAB also reviewed available assistance programs for community members needing help with property maintenance.
Content. So, what changes are reflected in the current draft of the nuisance code? Overall, the structure of the code was streamlined, contradictory and redundant language was deleted and more robust definitions were added to increase clarity. The Purpose and Scope statements were updated. Purpose: “The purpose of this Article is to promote the public’s health, safety, and welfare by establishing minimum standards governing the conditions and maintenance of property and structure to prevent the creation and continuation of public nuisances, as defined by this Article, and to provide a means for abatement, as authorized by State Law. Scope: The provisions of this Article shall govern the responsibilities of a person for maintenance of all residential and nonresidential structures, premises and property within the county. Property, structures, and premises shall be maintained in a clean, safe, and sanitary condition and shall not cause or create a health, safety, or welfare hazard.”
Additionally, some maintenance standards were deleted or changed.
- Language pertaining to overgrown weeds was changed to focus on obstructive vegetation (e.g., roadway visibility problems or encroachments on rights-of- way such as passage on sidewalks).
- Responsibilities for physical sidewalk maintenance (County) and right-of-way issues (property owner/occupant) were clarified.
- Language was clarified to permit active vehicle restoration and allow routine and minor vehicle maintenance and repairs.
- Exterior structure requirements were revised to focus on maintaining exterior surfaces in a condition that enables retention of function.
- Residential trash carts are no longer required to be stored out of public view.
- Outdoor storage/use of indoor furniture is no longer specifically disallowed.
- Storage of residential items is allowed in carports, provided items are stored in an orderly manner and do not inhibit parking within the carport.
- Storage of construction materials is allowed for up to nine months, longer if approved by the Community Development Department.
- References to heavy equipment were removed.
Some maintenance standards are unchanged.
- Keeping buildings, structures, or lots free from rodent harborage and infestation is addressed with respect to human health.
- Accumulation of litter, garbage and refuse is not allowed; property owners and occupants are responsible for proper disposal.
- Requirements for exhaust vents; swimming pools, spas and hot tubs; and structural integrity are unchanged.
- Storage of one inoperable vehicle in a front yard (if fitted with an opaque cover) is allowed if no other reasonable accommodation can be made for the storage. Otherwise, no more than three inoperable vehicles may be stored in a combination of rear yard and side yard with requirements regarding public view and safety. (This was moved from Chapter 16 -Development Code without changes.)
- The administrative section of the code was updated to clarify the process for addressing potential code violations. The issuance of a Courtesy Letter is the first step for mitigating a violation. In looking at the past two years, approximately 800 Courtesy Letters were sent out each year; most violations were resolved within the required timeframe without the need for issuance of a Notice of Violation (the next step in the process). During this two-year timeframe approximately 100 Notices of Violation were issued, and one case was taken to Municipal Court for resolution. Violations during the last two years were predominantly associated with building without a permit and weed overgrowth (close to 60%), with the remainder of the violations being a combination of trash, debris and unsafe conditions (about 20%), and
- unpermitted accessory structures and outdoor storage (including refrigerators and inoperable vehicles).
Input. In our community, as in others, there are concerns regarding overregulation but also concerns regarding adequate enforcement of property maintenance standards. Community input and surveys mentioned earlier in this note bears out these divergent views. Many of us have read letters in local media expressing concerns about the code update. The 2018 Los Alamos County Community Survey (395 random respondents, lacnm.com/2018-CommSurveyResults, pages 16 and 17) noted that 41% supported maintaining current property maintenance standards, 18% supported increasing requirements, and 30% supported decreasing requirements (11% did not have an opinion). Issues identified in this survey included abandoned vehicles, unsafe structures, vehicles on lawns, shrubs, weeds, trash, and disrepair as issues of concern. As a part of the CDAB efforts to inform the code update, an informal survey (about 30 respondents) was carried out at Farmer’s Markets in 2021 (lacnm.com/CDAB-Agenda-06-2021). Questions included (a) should municipalities define and enforce property maintenance standards (78% yes, 22% no), (b) do properties in your neighborhood meet your standards for maintenance and appearance (52% yes, 38% mostly, 10% no), (c) does the County strike the right balance in enforcing property maintenance standards (44% just right, 22% too loose, 33% too strict). Finally, in 2021 a Los Alamos County Code Enforcement Survey (1207 random + 233 non-random respondents, lacnm.com/2021-Chptr18-SurveyResults) conducted as a part of the code update efforts noted (page 18) that 8% felt the code was too lenient, 22% felt it was ok, and 28% felt it was excessive (43% felt they didn’t know).
Clearly not all do or will agree with each aspect of the Nuisance Code, and the challenge is to find the best approach for our community given multiple perspectives. The current draft of the code introduced on November 15, 2022 has eliminated some property maintenance requirements in the 2014 code, added clarifying language and definitions, as well as eliminated redundancies and inconsistencies. I look forward to proceeding with finalizing an update to our code that balances the input of our community.