Lenoir deploys new weapon against blight

Jun. 22, 2014 @ 08:08 AM

The job of keeping up with ramshackle housing, zoning violations and nuisance reports kept burning out Lenoir's code enforcement officers. The planning department in 2013 opened a total of 159 cases.

"We went through four code enforcement officers in a year," Police Chief Scott Brown said.

Last year, the police and planning departments received approval to split the former code enforcement officer into two positions with separate duties. The police added a position for a nuisance abatement investigator to handle such things as delapidated buildings, overgrown lots and junk cars. In January, nine-year police veteran Stacey Whalen-Hall, a detective, took on the job.

On a typical day in the field, Whalen-Hall grabs an armful of file folders and traipses through tall weeds, documenting ramshackle homes and talking to neighbors.

Nuisance violations in Lenoir now are being vigorously enforced.

In the past two months, Whalen-Hall has responded to at least 30 complaints, including junk cars, garbage, trash and debris, tall grass and dogs running loose.

"We've seen a drastic improvement in the handling of these cases," Brown said. "We've had two houses on Wilson Street that had been a thorn in our sides for 20 years. They have now been torn down and the property rehabilitated.

"This has never been handled the way it was supposed to be. Now it is."

One day last week, Whalen-Hall inspected 15 properties that already had been the subject of complaints. There was a delapidated shed on Bealle Street, where the home was in foreclosure, and a preservation group hired by a bank had been contacted to clean up the property. A property on Eastview Street was overgrown with weeds and grass. An abandoned convenience store on Norwood Street was inspected.

Of the 15, a few had been brought into compliance. Most were still in violation. Whalen-Hall will have to track down the owners and notify them of their obligations. If that doesn't work, the city could be forced to hire a contractor, and the property owner would be billed for the cost.

"Obviously, owner abatement is the preferred solution for these type cases, since little to no tax dollars are involved in cleaning up the problem," Brown said.

Since February, a total of 71 nuisance cases were opened, with a majority being resolved by the owner, instead of the city hiring a contractor to do the cleanup.

Owners who are cited are given 10-15 days to bring their properties into compliance. Once that time has elapsed, violators can be assessed fines that escalate from $50 to $500, depending on how long the violation lasts.

"It's a civil case, but it can become a criminal case if it is not taken care of," Brown said.

Zach Clark, Lenoir's zoning and housing inspector, said that splitting the task of handling housing and nuisance cases has made the job of beautifying Lenoir easier.

"The workload was substantial, to say the least," Clark said. "The split has allowed us to focus on mulitple cases and follow through much more effectively. It was a great move. It's really brought the police and planning departments together. I've been very pleased."