|Commission: better contact by code office needed|
|The Press - News|
|Written by Mike Anderson|
|Thursday, 28 June 2012 14:46|
Procedures for improving communications between people accused of zoning violations and county officials responsible for enforcing the zoning code were called for by the Baker County Commission last week after reviewing an unresolved case from 2003.
The move was prompted on the evening of June 25 after commissioners heard from a property owner who was ordered to pay a $3,969.18 fine, which included annual penalty charges, for failing to install skirting on a mobile home in Glen St. Mary in 2003.
The owner at the time, Alice Crawford, claimed that the skirting was installed in August 2003, about a month after the county notified her of the violation. She also denied any knowledge of the county’s placement of a lien on the property for failure to comply until recently.
“It was a big shock to me,” Mrs. Crawford told commissioners. “My husband put the skirting up. This is a big misunderstanding.”Her husband, Billy Crawford, told commissioners that he “put that skirting on myself on August 25, 2003.”
However, an inspection of the home at 14233 Pecan Circle on October 13, 2003 revealed that the skirting had not been installed as previously ordered, said Bob Hathcox, county zoning enforcement official.
Mr. Hathcox told commissioners that Mrs. Crawford had been notified by certified mail that the case would be heard by the Code Enforcement Board on the evening of October 13, 2003. However, he said the notice was not returned to the county and Mrs. Crawford did not attend the hearing.
The board found her in violation and gave her 10 days to come into compliance or face a fine of $50 for the first day and $10 per day thereafter, up to a maximum of 180 days. On October 27, 2003, after receiving no response from the owner, an order of enforcement and notice of lien was recorded.
The original fine of $1,840, plus a $25 recording fee, grew at the rate of 10 percent annually to $3,969.18. Mr. Hathcox said Mrs. Crawford was instructed to contact the county when skirting was installed on the trailer but he said she never called.
Again, Mrs. Crawford disputed the official version of what had happened.
“I did call and talk to some lady and let them know,” she said. “I would never let it go this far.”
Mr. Hathcox said that as far as he knew nobody had ever called to let the county know that the skirting had been installed. Commissioners said it appeared as though someone was not being completely truthful.
Commission Chairman Gordon Crews said that if he had received an order of enforcement and notice of lien on his property, “I would have come down here (to the county building department),” to deal with the matter in person.
Commissioner Michael Crews asked Mr. Hathcox if there had been any inspection of the Crawford residence after October 13, 2003, to which Mr. Hathcox replied: “No, not until about a week and a half ago.” It was then, he said, that he first saw skirting on the trailer.
At some point, Alice Crawford’s daughter, Casey Crawford, was added to the deed and recently entered in an agreement to sell the property to a neighbor. That’s when the family discovered the lien.
“This is the first I’ve heard of the violation,” Casey Crawford told commissioners, adding that she was trying to sell the property to buy a newer mobile home on land for her and her young children.
Alice Crawford said she had given her daughter “my life savings” to help put her and her children in a new home. She said she works a minimum-wage job and her daughter is unemployed and has health problems herself.
Casey Crawford said she only had about $500 in the bank and could not afford to pay the county a big fine. She said she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to sell her property and buy the new property if she had to pay the fine.
Commissioners were sympathetic to her plight but refused to waive the fine entirely. Instead, they ordered her to pay the original $1,840 fine, which was recommended by the Code Enforcement Board and County Commissioner Adam Giddens. The vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Mark Hartley holding out for a greater reduction.
“It seems like it’s going to be a burden on her even at $1,800,” Mr. Hartley said.
Commissioner Jimmy Anderson agreed, alluding to a very similar zoning violation case recently in which he and fellow commissioners overruled the Code Enforcement Board by ordering a fine reduced from $2,820 to $187.84.
“We were a lot more generous then,” Mr. Anderson said, referring to a case involving a man who took 20 months to comply with the county’s trailer-skirting requirement. In that case, the Code Enforcement Board had recommended cutting the fine in half: to $1,410.
During the discussion leading up to the final order last week, commissioners said some procedural changes were in order to prevent similar zoning violation cases from continuing unresolved for many years.
“Maybe we need to strengthen the policies,” Commissioner Michael Crews said.
Commissioner Giddens suggested zoning officials re-inspect properties 90 days or so after a lien is imposed to see if violators have come into compliance “instead of letting a case drag on for years like this one.”
Meanwhile, with two similar cases in which violators have recently sought and received fine reductions, “I’m afraid we’re going to start a snowball,” Mr. Giddens said.
In other business commissioners:
• Approved a new zoning ordinance that enables owners of vast timberland acreage to sell thousands of acres for residential development without adhering to costly subdivision regulations.
The ordinance allows large tracts of land to be divided any number of times into individual parcels 20 acres or larger. Current land development regulations require large tracts of land divided more than twice to meet subdivision requirements, including platting requirements and paved roads.
A key provision in the new ordinance is that parcels resulting from a sale must have “direct access to an existing county road, paved or unpaved.” Only one residential structure would be permitted on each new 20-acre parcel.
County officials estimate there are about 50,000 acres of timberland in very few ownerships in the county that could fall under the new regulations.
“It is anticipated that 20-acre and larger parcels will continue to be used as timberland and can also serve as single residences with minimal impacts to the existing dirt roads,” according to a staff report recommending approval of the ordinance.
• Approved a request for a land use and zoning change on a 2.5 acre parcel on Shirley Road from agricultural to very low density residential. The property was divided in 1991 but the division resulted in the 2.5 acre size not conforming to the 7.5 acre minimum lot size required in its present zoning category.
Planning and Zoning Director Ed Preston said the requested change was recommended favorably by both the Development Review Committee and the Land Planning Agency.
“Planning staff finds that this request for a small scale land use and zoning change to make compliant for residential uses is consistent with the comprehensive plan,” Mr. Preston said.
• Approved a request for a land use and zoning change on a 5.69 acre parcel from agricultural to low density residential in order to allow the owner to divide the property into two separate lots. The parcel is on Flintlock Drive adjacent to the Seminole Ridge Unit II subdivision, about a mile east of CR 127 North.
“The property has been this size and shape since the 1950s, giving it a legal lot of record status, is less than the required 7.5 acres and is, therefore, a legal non-conforming lot,” Mr. Preston said, adding that the new zoning would make the property compliant.