2012-10-05 / Front Page

Nuisance houses get second look at city council

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council moved another step closer to strengthening the ordinance that governs public nuisances in the city.

The council voted 6-0, with Councilor Tom Coward absent, to pass the first reading of the proposed ordinance change submitted by Sally Daggett, corporate counsel, and Pat Doucette, code enforcement officer. A second reading and final action on the ordinance change is set for Monday, Oct. 15.

The council first discussed the issue at a Sept. 24 workshop, where a number of residents frustrated with the conditions of their neighbors’ properties voiced their concerns to the council.

The council discussion at a meeting Monday, Oct. 1 meeting took a broader tone. Councilors focused mainly on how the tougher ordinance would be enforced rather than the language in the ordinance itself.

Daggett and Doucette had already amended section 16-3 and 16-4 of the ordinance at the council’s request. The list of what qualifies as a public nuisance was expanded to include outdoor storage of personal property that is “worn out, broken, deteriorated, dismantled or, based on their physical condition, have been discarded or abandoned.”

The list of materials that would qualify as a nuisance includes everything from tires to cabinets to scrap lumber. Currently, chapter 16 of the ordinance covers automobile junkyards, as well as open or uncovered wells.

The other major change in the new ordinance would be shifting the responsibility to dole out punishment and fines for nuisance violations over to the state courts rather than the city. Currently, the council can issue an abatement order once it declares a property owner in violation of the ordinance at a public hearing, at which point the city can enter a property and remove the offending items.

Under the new ordinance, if a property owner does not comply with the council’s abatement order after the public hearing, “the City may bring an action in the Superior Court or District Court for injunctive relief to abate the public nuisance.”

“This is a very effective way to go about this,” Daggett said. “The city’s not really doing this to collect the fines. We want compliance, we want the property to be cleaned up.”

Members of the public gathered at the meeting were more concerned with the city’s ability to clean up a mess than the judicial process. Sheryl Frisco originally brought a petition to the city because she said a messy property on Anthoine Street impacted the value of a neighboring house her daughter was trying to sell.

But the owner of the property in question, Patty Whittemore, said in a phone interview she has complied with the city to clean up her property, and the condition of her yard is not violating any city ordinances.

“Pat (Doucette) told us what to get rid of and we complied with that. People are coming here now like, ‘What are we looking at?’” Whittemore said.

Frisco doesn’t think the proposed ordinance goes far enough to help her neighbors with their concerns. She suggested adding the phrase, “creates a substantial interference with use or enjoyment of neighboring properties,” to the definition of a public nuisance. Without that, she doesn’t see enough substance in the new ordinance.

“I don’t think it’s going to have enough teeth. I don’t think it addresses specifically that people can enjoy their property,” Frisco said after the meeting.

Doucette said there are two petitions signed by 10 and 23 residents respectively, that she is holding while waiting for the ordinance changes to be finalized. The petitions ask for the city’s help to clean up two separate properties. Doucette said the effectiveness of the new ordinance will be tested when those petitions go through.

“We’re going to find out real quick whether this language will hold up,” Doucette said.

“Knowing that there’s petitions out there waiting patiently, I’d like us to continue to work on the same fast track,” said Mayor Patti Smith. “I feel as though this is a very good start on an issue that needs to be dealt with.”

But Sawyer Street resident Linda French warned the council against overstepping its bounds with changes.

“The more I see the city or state taking a stand, the less people have for individual rights. Most of the people who have bought these homes have bought and paid dearly for them,” French said.

“You really need to think this thing out, because every time you make a new rule that confines one set of people it takes away rights from someone else, and that’s my biggest concern,” she added.

French wondered if smaller matters like painting a house pink, putting out a statue that neighbors don’t like, or even burning a wood stove in the house that produces smoke could conceivably qualify as a nuisance if neighbors argued it brought their property value down.

City resident Gary Crosby also said he never wants to see a homeowner lose property rights, but he saw no problem with the ordinance as written.

“I’m a huge property rights person,” Crosby said, “but along with those rights come responsibilities.”

Return to top