Here’s what the City can do (and can’t do) when property owners don’t clean up

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    With the snow from earlier in the winter long-gone and this week’s snow sure to be a memory soon, added to the fact that the City of Crookston’s Spring Clean-Up Week is fast approaching, it’s the time of the year when property owners feeling especially motivated by warmer temperatures and the grass getting greener give their properties a good once-over.

    But not all property owners are overcome with the spirit of spring and the motivation to spruce up their yards, which is where City ordinances involving junk, debris and other items in yards come into play.

    City Attorney Corky Reynolds and Crookston Fire Chief Tim Froeber updated the Crookston City Council this week on what the City has the power to do when complaints about junk-strewn properties are made by citizens, as well as what the City lacks the power to do.

    At the heart of the City codes in regard to properties that require attention is the fact that the policy is complaint-based, Reynolds noted. Years ago, the City, as well as municipalities elsewhere, had a designated person drive around town as the snow started to melt and identify properties that were in violation to varying degrees of the City’s various junk-related codes. But enforcement was a problem, he continued.

    “There were arguments in Crookston and elsewhere that it was selective enforcement,” Reynolds said.

    So that system was replaced by the current complain-based system.

    Complaints can be directed to city hall, where the city administrator, currently Amy Finch, is considered the point-person to respond to complaints. Complaints can also be made directly to the fire department, Reynolds explained, which the City has designated as the agency that will be at the forefront of fielding complaints, responding to them, and following-up in whatever ways are necessary to bring the complaints to a resolution.

    Those making complaints are permitted to remain anonymous, but they are required to detail the nature of their complaint and where the property spurring the complaint is located.

    Then the CFD takes action. They’ll “validate” it by doing things such as taking photos of conditions that triggered the complaint. Then they’ll send a letter to the alleged violator that details the problems that resulted in a complaint being made. Some time, typically up to 10 days but also longer, Froeber stressed, if certain arrangements are made, is allowed for the problem to be resolved. The desired resolution is that the garbage, junk, debris, vehicles, etc. are removed, Reynolds said.

    If the problem is not abated, a second letter follows, giving the violator 48 more hours to clean things up or make arrangements to get things cleaned up. If nothing happens over those two days, a third letter follows, giving another 48 hours to address the problem, Reynolds said. In that letter, the violator is notified that the City will take action if the problem persists. Separate or simultaneous actions could include the issuance of a misdemeanor violation, the City getting consent of the property owner to clean it up and bill the property owner, or the City seeking an administrative warrant in court allowing the City to clean up the property and bill the property owner for the City’s time and effort.

    Cleaning up a property could involve removing items that led to the complaint, housing them in a garage, shed, etc., or putting in fencing so the items cannot be seen by passers-by or nearby property owners, Reynolds said.

    “The city attorney position is that we want these problems to go away, that’s the chief desire; we don’t want to put anyone in jail,” he continued. “…We want to emphasize now, with clean-up week the last week of April, that these items can be placed on (the curbside or boulevard) 72 hours prior to pick-up.”

    Froeber stressed that not every case is the same, and that as communication continues between the CFD and a violator, it can take a month or more to reach a resolution that satisfies all parties involved. He added that, currently, the CFD is working with around a handful of property owners who have spurred complaints. Several of them are repeat offenders, Froeber noted.

    “They are being worked on if we know about them,” he said.

    A crucial step early in the process involves determining if a property is actually violating an ordinance, Froeber continued.

    “We have to verify that it’s junk,” he explained. “Kids’ toys, lawn furniture, a grill in the yard or a lawnmower or snowblower…it might be in disarray, but that’s still not junk, as defined in our ordinance.

    “There might be homes I don’t want to live next to (with the aforementioned items strewn about the yard), but there’s nothing we can do about those,” Froeber went on to say. “We get a lot of calls on those types of things, but if we first have to verify that it’s junk and if we are able to do anything.”