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Amended nuisance ordinance targets distressed Newport homes

Newport might soon be in for its own kind of city-wide spring cleaning.

The City Council is amending its nuisance ordinance to impose stricter penalties upon homeowners of properties deemed distressed.

Blighted homes riddled with code violations have been a longstanding problem throughout the city, a debate that resurfaced earlier this year after several residents complained about the lack of citations issued.

An existing ordinance imposes a warning or misdemeanor charge upon homeowners whose homes are in a “dilapidated condition or kept in a manner that is a menace to the health of neighbors.”

Despite the penalty, Newport resident Sonya Walsh said it hasn’t been enforced.

Walsh lives in the 500 block of Fourth Street adjacent to a property that city officials have declared a chronic offender.

The owner was working on the house, she said, at odd hours of the night and day, and was doing so with expired permits. While City Administrator Deb Hill confirmed last week that the property has been sold, Walsh said more needs to be done.

The ordinance amendment, City Attorney Fritz Knaak explained, is an attempt to create a method that the city could more effectively use when taking ordinance violators to court.

The proposed language inserts a graduated penalty system that makes each infraction a separate and identified offense.

A homeowner who chronically violates the ordinance the first time will likely be given a warning with a reasonable amount of time to address the issue. In some cases, a nominal fine is attached. A second violation within one year of a prior conviction carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and no less than a $500 fine. A third violation within four years of a prior conviction carries the same jail time but a more expensive fine of no less than $800.

“To my knowledge this hasn’t been done elsewhere,” Knaak said of the amendment. “There is an alarm ordinance where two or three offenses increase the level of fines but I think this is what it might take to charge this thing out. Who knows, maybe this will be the first example and others will follow.”

Council member Bill Sumner, whose property was among those singled out as allegedly being in violation during a public hearing in January, was uncomfortable with the stricter ordinance. He said it could create a “vigilante-type” of policing.

“That, in my opinion, I think is going in the wrong direction,” he said. “I think people that are so nosey and so nit-picky need to take up another hobby. Going after people with an ax because they have stuff in their yard is way beyond what I want to be supporting.”

Council member Tracy Rahm reiterated that the goal of the proposed ordinance amendment is to “improve the appearance of Newport.”

Knaak added that if the city took the “hard-nose enforcement” route, there could be added revenue from homeowners paying fines.

The ordinance amendment, Knaak added, does not preclude civil remedies that are already in place.

“We need to do this in a common sense, amicable way so that we’re not over enforcing, we’re not under enforcing,” Rahm said. “We identify which properties need to be targeted, those ones that have some problems and say ‘What can we do to get those properties improved?’”

The enforcement of the amended ordinance would continue to be administered by the Newport Police Department. Police Chief Curt Montgomery said calls for nuisance violations are typically handled by a community service officer (CSO).

“Code enforcement has the toughest job as far as making a judgement call, and they have to have good common sense,” he said. “We don’t want to see someone revengeful put in a position of power.”

The officers give warnings, sometimes several, before ticketing, Montgomery said. He said the CSO has discretion.

“Sometimes it gets drawn out more than it should but I’d rather not have to send (the case) to court if I can get it fixed otherwise.”

Gallagher said he understood that some residents, specifically those who are elderly or have limited means, will need help and time to remedy the issue, and said the city is willing to work with those residents.

“You can tell that most of these people want to do the right thing,” Montgomery said. “But sometimes it just takes time.

“We’re not nitpicking,” he added. “We’re looking at the big violations.”