It will not be easy, but code enforcement needed

Borough Assembly Member Jim DeBord is right to warn against “going down the rabbit hole too far” when it comes to enforcing municipal code against junk vehicles and garbage on private property. But it’s a hole the borough needs to fill so that no one gets hurt and so that neighbors don’t see their property values go into a hole.

The assembly and borough officials are doing the right thing to look at how they can best enforce municipal code provisions against property owners leaving junk vehicles, garbage, unused machinery and other leftovers of life stacked and stashed on their lots.

At the July 25 assembly meeting, members expressed interest in how Sitka tries to clean up the problem. That community has a code enforcement panel comprised of representatives from the police department, planning and zoning, fire department and public works.

Wrangell’s municipal code offers fairly strong language on the subject: “No owner … tenant or occupant shall allow or permit any junk vehicles, junk, debris or indiscriminate storage of machinery, equipment parts, lumber or other material, or any accumulation of garbage … to be or remain upon his yard, lot or premises.”

But what the ordinance does not address is what about all-too-lengthy storage before the property owner takes the vehicle or trash to the waste transfer station? What if the “junk” is a source of parts for a rebuilding project? What if the lumber might be used for a new wall or shed in the future?

DeBord said he supports the goal of code enforcement, but is concerned it could become overly punitive.

“We’re not here to have a revenue stream (fines),” Police Chief Tom Radke told the assembly. “We’re here to improve the town.”

In an interview the week before the assembly meeting, Radke said the police “have been getting a lot of complaints,” not just about derelict cars, but also boats and general trash in people’s yards. Callers, usually neighbors, want to know “what we’re doing about it.”

What the assembly is doing about it is looking for staff to do some more research and then come back with an ordinance to set up a code enforcement panel, a group that could possibly hear complaints and work with the community to solve problems.

Drafting an ordinance, making it effective — and fair — and then getting through the public hearing process will not be easy. “In Alaska, people have that frame of mind, it’s my property ... and you can’t tell me what to do with it,” Radke said. “One man’s junk is another man’s heaven.”

But when someone’s junk presents a public safety hazard or intrudes on a neighbor’s property view — their own bit of heaven — it’s time for the borough to step in and find a King Solomon solution to keep the peace.

— Wrangell Sentinel


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