Reynoldsburg eyes stricter penalties for property-code violations

KELLEY YOUMAN
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ThisWeek group

The owners, operators or occupants of buildings in the city of Reynoldsburg with property-maintenance-code violations could soon face fines of up to $1,000 a day.

Reynoldsburg City Council is expected to consider an ordinance next month that, if approved, would beef up its ability to deal with violations of its property-maintenance code, particularly for commercial buildings, and make more parties potentially liable for violations.

According to legislation presented to council in July, the city "recognizes properties often fall into conditions of disrepair and in violation of established codes ... and pose a threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the city and can constitute a public nuisance."

"In the process of investigating and prosecuting violations, we have noticed that there are some changes we need to make to our property-maintenance code," said Chris Shook, city attorney. "Probably the most significant change is in the penalty provision. We have expanded the identity of individuals or companies that might be responsible for code violations, which include any owner, operator or occupant of the premise who can be found in violation."

Currently, a first-time penalty is a minor misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum $150 in fines.

The new ordinance would increase fines and eliminate potential jail sentences in an effort to "incentivize" owners to fix problems rather than ignore them, officials said.

"The proposed penalty would be an unclassified misdemeanor, which would be penalized by up to $1,000 in fines," Shook said. "Those fines could accrue each day that those violations continue to exist, after issuance of notice of the violations itself.

"The increase in potential fines is related more to commercial property and apartment complexes," he said. "While a small fine may be a deterrent for a residential violation, they are not as much of a deterrent for commercial violations when you may have property owners who have the means and preference to pay a small fine rather than investing in the property to get it up to code."

Shook said increasing the penalties for violating the city code would likely increase the chances that problem properties would be brought into compliance.

"We also wanted to be able to explain who could be found as a violator," he said. "It can be difficult to find the owner of a property, especially if it is owned by an LLC (limited liability corporation). We wanted to expand who could be responsible for that violation, so we included owner, occupant and operator."

Reynoldsburg code-enforcement officers investigate more than 1,000 code violations each year, with most considered minor offenses such as trash and tall grass, officials said.

Citations issued to commercial properties often are for violations such as exterior wall or roofing problems, cracked pavement and walkways, trash containment and fencing, Shook said.

Reynoldsburg has cited 37 property-maintenance code violation cases into mayor's court so far this year, according to the city's clerk of courts.

Last year, eight cases were sent to mayor's court.

"We have cited more code violations into court this year than we did all of last year, but we are pursuing compliance, not convictions," Shook said. "We give property owners a reasonable amount of time to come into compliance and then we usually dismiss the citation. We think expanding the entities or individuals accountable for violations and increasing the potential financial penalty will result in more compliance.

"Many of these items take time for the property owner to address, so we usually keep working with them as long as they are making progress. If we have a property owner who ignores a mayor's court citation or who is not making progress, we send it to the Franklin County Environmental Court."

The proposed ordinance also mandates use of the 2018 version of the International Property Maintenance Code, published by the International Code Council. Reynoldsburg currently relies on the 2003 version, Shook said.

If approved, it would be the second piece of legislation passed by council this year in an effort to address problem properties. In May, the city established a registry for vacant or abandoned properties, requiring inspections and imposing annual fees of up to $1,000. Under the law, a building is deemed vacant if it is unoccupied for more than 60 days, has disconnected utilities or property-maintenance violations or is unsecured or secured by "other than normal means."

Owners are required to provide the city with a "security plan" to keep trespassers out of such properties, which, according to city information, often have exterior code violations and can become havens for such crimes as drug- and human trafficking.

Buildings under foreclosure or those with a mortgage status of abandonment also could be deemed vacant.

"I have a lot of faith in our code (enforcement) officers. Because of the nature of their duties, they are often on the receiving end of anger and, in some cases, threats," Shook said. "They do not get nearly enough credit for what they do for the community.

"We believe increased code compliance correlates to increased property values, attractiveness of the city for business and a reduction in crime. It also goes a long way toward increasing community pride."

Council is expected to discuss the proposed property-maintenance-code legislation at its next regular meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 14 at City Hall, 7232 E. Main St.

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