City Hall is planning to stiffen, clarify and consolidate its nuisance laws, with special attention being aimed at people who knowingly allow conditions that offend public safety, welfare and decency.
“They may not be accessories (to crimes), but they certainly are not good citizens,” Mike Hemlepp, the city attorney who has been drafting the changes most of this year.
“When a property in a neighborhood is spinning off into a drug house and everyone is calling us and asking us to close it,” he said, the question becomes, how?
“The biggest problem we have with nuisances is the definition was loosey-goosey and enforcement was unpredictable,” said Hemlepp, who is assigned to the Columbia Police Department. “When the definition ... is too open-ended, the court is left trying to figure out a balancing test between the rights of the city and the rights of the person.”
The 11-page draft proposal is designed to pressure violators to comply and win more of the cases that end up in court, he said.
On Tuesday, a City Council committee referred the rewritten nuisance law and a first-for-Columbia false security alarm proposals to the full council. It’s unclear how soon council could vote on either.
The nuisance law defines nuisances that range from shrubbery that blocks drivers’ clear views at intersections, urban camping and businesses that operate without a license or are delinquent on on city taxes or fees to a squad of police being called repeatedly to particular addresses.
The penalties will remain the same, Hemlepp said: Up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
The proposal authorizes the chief of police, his designee and the city’s business license director as the ones who would determine which cases constitute public nuisances. Administrative appeals may be filed either with the city’s Property Maintenance Board or with the city manager’s office.
Disputes still could land in city or state courts.
Columbia has a false fire alarm law but not one that applies to security alarms at homes and businesses, Hemlepp said. Since Jan. 1, 2014, officers have answered 14,00 false security alarms, he said.
The proposal would levy fines that range from $25 to $300 on property owners who don’t fix their alarms. After five false alarms in one year, police would no longer respond except in emergency cases.
“Our goal is to not have to answer false alarms anymore,” he said. “If you fix it, there’s no penalty.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
Landlord accountability plan slowed
Columbia City Council’s Economic and Community Development Committee on Tuesday recommended creation of a working group that would include landlords, neighborhood leaders and city staffers to refine a proposed law aimed at absentee landlords. The draft plan, among other provisions, calls for:
▪ Imposing a penalty points on landlords who don’t deal with problem tenants or property maintenance complaints. Accumulation of six points could result in revocation of city permits.
▪ Requiring landlords who live outside a 45-mile radius of Columbia to register a local agent who is responsible for the property.
▪ Allowing police to get easier access to suspect properties. But search warrants would be required if officers are denied entry.