On May 16, the Pierce County Council passed Ordinance 2017-22 to combat public nuisance properties in unincorporated Pierce County. The new ordinance, effective immediately, declared nuisance properties the highest code enforcement priority for the Deptartment of Planning and Public Works, requiring violations to be resolved within 90 days of the issuance of county notice of complaint, or else be referred to the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.
Yvonne Reed, code enforcement supervisor for Planning and Public Works, made a presentation to the Key Peninsula Community Council at its meeting May 10, before the ordinance passed, to explain the county’s cleanup process.
“If the new ordinance passes, we’re going to give solid waste violations, junk vehicle or any property maintenance code violations top priority,” Reed said. Other complaints such as illegal businesses or animal complaints “will be lower priority for us,” she said.
Earlier this year, the council transferred solid waste enforcement from the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department to the Planning and Public Works code enforcement arm, Pierce County Responds. Pierce County Responds is a nationally recognized program created in 2002 as a clearing-house for public-nuisance complaints and coordinates multiple agency efforts to resolve those complaints.
Property cleanup, referred to as “abatement,” can be cooperative or uncooperative. With cooperation from the property owner, the county can assist by issuing a one-time voucher to help defray proper disposal costs.
Whether cooperative or not, if the county does the cleanup, it uses professional abatement estimators and contractors and keeps disposal costs down through recycling. The county recoups the entire cost of the cleanup by filing a lien on the subject property. Like all property tax liens, it must be paid in full with interest within three years or the property goes up for auction to satisfy the debt.
“When we first started this program, we thought it would work and it’s turned out even better than we had hoped,” Reed said. “Thanks in part to interest collected on liens from 2007 to 2015, Pierce County Responds was able to recoup 101 percent of the cost to clean up public-nuisance properties throughout the county.”
The county council responded to increased citizen complaints by departmental restructuring and issuing the new ordinance, and authorized Planning and Public Works to hire two additional enforcement employees.
After Chris and Sally Honse of Glide, Oregon, foreclosed on Key Center property they tried to sell in a real estate deal gone bad in 2013, they found the 7-acre property contained 180 junk vehicles, 550 used tires, car batteries, old paint, propane cylinders and other hazardous waste. The Honses could have chosen to have Pierce County perform the abatement, but after spending so much money in legal fees to get their property back, they did not want to incur a lien and instead felt they had no choice but to call upon family members to help clean up the property.
It took nine months. There were 25 truckloads hauled to the Purdy Transfer Station and seven truckloads of wood waste taken to North Mason Fiber in Belfair, according to Chris Honse.
Pierce County code enforcement officers helped by inventorying and issuing the junk vehicle affidavits necessary to dispose of the vehicles, but the cost of abatement was borne entirely by the Honses.
“We thought we were setting ourselves up for future retirement income,” Chris Honse said. Rather than add to it, they depleted their savings to protect their most important asset.
“Pierce County is able to recoup all their expenditures, which is not the same for blameless private property owners,” Honse said. “The laws need to change.”