Junk Cars, Rundown Houses, and Messy Yards!

My position on these problems is this: first, that the town of Mineral Springs will follow all applicable state laws governing regulation of property, and second, that the town will only take on regulation of these matters if this regulation can be accomplished economically, safely, and with full respect for the constitutionally-guaranteed property rights of our citizens.

The town has far less authority over these matters than many people realize!

§ 160A-381 of the North Carolina General Statutes grants municipalities a limited zoning power, spelled out as follows: "A zoning ordinance may regulate and restrict the height, number of stories and size of buildings and other structures, the percentage of lots that may be occupied, the size of yards, courts and other open spaces, the density of population, the location and use of buildings, structures and land."

Junk Cars:

Our zoning ordinance does prohibit unenclosed storage of vehicles that are "neither licensed nor operational". This is considered a "use", and, as such, falls under zoning regulation. However, enforcement of such a zoning regulation is not as easy. The zoning administrator may issue notice of violation and, eventually, impose fines. But a property owner might in some cases simply let fines accumulate and leave the junk car(s) in place. 

Over a period of several months in 2003 and 2004, your town council studied the idea of establishing a "junk car ordinance" under the general police powers granted by state law, powers outside of zoning regulation. This would have involved hiring wrecker services to go onto people's property to seize their junk vehicles. However, property rights issues come to the forefront when you're talking about going onto somebody's land and seizing his property. Our attorney advised council that this was a very serious matter that might create unforeseen problems. In fact, I spoke with the town administrator in Marshville, where their council had just adopted a vehicle-towing ordinance. He informed me that he would not have recommended that council adopt such an ordinance if the town didn't have a full-time police department. The safety of wrecker operators, the secure storage of seized vehicles, a method to pay fines and towing charges at any time of day, and the protection of the rights of vehicle owners could only be guaranteed by a 24-hour-per-day, full-time police department.

In 2016, the Mineral Springs town council looked at other options for addressing several types of nuisance, including junk cars, and began to develop a nuisance ordinance to address these problems. The ordinance would be enforced by an outside contractor with expertise in the field, and your town council finally adopted a nuisance ordinance in early 2016. Unfortunately, one resident (and a current candidate for town council) opposed the ordinance and demonstrated his displeasure by filing excessive and frivolous complaints that would have cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in superfluous contract enforcement. Council was forced to repeal the ordinance and is currently working on a revised version that will protect taxpayers and property owners from such abusive practices.

Rundown Houses:

Almost every town has a few, including Mineral Springs.

But zoning authority does not give the town authority to "condemn" and tear down buildings. Period. Only a building inspection department is authorized by law to do that, and Mineral Springs does not have a building inspection department. In fact, establishing a building inspection department is such a complex and expensive undertaking that only two municipalities in Union County have done so: Monroe and Waxhaw. Monroe has a tax rate of 55.5 cents per $100, and Waxhaw has a tax rate of 34 cents per $100. Mineral Springs has a tax rate of 2.5 cents per $100.

A building inspection department requires a staff of trained, licensed building inspectors. In bigger cities and in towns with a lot of new construction, inspection fees help pay for this staff. The amount of new construction in Mineral Springs is very limited, and there would not be enough inspection fees generated to support a building inspection department...and a tax increase would be necessary. Union County, that DOES have an inspections department, consistently declined to enforce a minimum building standard on existing properties.

So, please remember: it's just not that simple! Your town council and I prefer a "positive" approach. For example, there are a few houses in very poor condition located in downtown Mineral Springs. By working with Union County to acquire downtown sewer service, your town council and I expect new downtown development to displace rundown properties as new development opportunities present themselves.

Meanwhile, council briefly incorporated "nuisance structures" into its 2017 nuisance ordinance, a tactic that IS allowed by North Carolina statute. The same abusive reporting by a single resident involved multiple structure complaints. Due to the extremely high cost of nuisance-structure enforcement, these complaints were the primary motivation for council's temporary repeal of the nuisance ordinance.

BUT THE GOOD NEWS IS: UNION COUNTY HAS APPARENTLY BEGUN TO ENFORCE MINIMUM BUILDING STANDARDS THROUGH ITS INSPECTION DEPARTMENT! This means that complaints about dilapidated structures may be made directly to Union County, and the town will not have to get involved in this extremely complex and expensive code-enforcement realm. Any new nuisance ordinance will not involve structures, as Union County with its expertise and qualified personnel will rightly take over this code-enforcement duty.

Messy Yards:

So your neighbor's grass is too long for your liking, or there's some junk piled up in your neighbor's yard. Our zoning ordinance, through regulation of "use", prohibits junkyards, and junk accumulation beyond a certain level can be defined as a "junkyard". The zoning administrator has been quite successful over the years at getting people to clean up junk accumulations.

Grass cutting and similar vegetation management are a different matter. Some property owners cut hay on their property. Others prefer natural vegetation. It is very difficult to determine the fine line between "agriculture" and "suburbia", but Mineral Springs was founded as a rural community that respects a rural way of life. Again in 2003 and 2004, your town council and I deliberated yard maintenance regulations. In fact, it was I who sought out ordinances from other towns and presented them to Council. Your council received a lot of negative responses to such regulations from the public and no positive ones. Council listened to the voices of the people and studied the cost and other ramifications of enforcing such regulations, and decided at that time against another "big government" program.

My approach to these matters - and the approach of your town council - has been to err on the side of caution when it comes to property rights vs. "big government". The old saying "be careful what you wish for" certainly applies here. How many people moved into a town with excessive government regulation, or moved into a neighborhood with a strict HOA, and came to regret it?

But...council and I continued to listen to the "Voice of the People" on this. In 2017, after enough citizens expressed a desire for junk and weed enforcement, council incorporated these complaints into the nuisance ordinance. Abuse of the ordinance as a "protest" by one resident resulted in council repealing the ordinance in order to revise it and protect residents from abusive reporting. A revised nuisance ordinance that prevents just some of the overreach that had previously worried residents and your town council will be considered in early 2018.