Even after holding a lengthy discussion on the sticky issue, Mount Airy officials seem no further along than they were before regarding enforcement of minimum housing codes.
Everyone seems in agreement that problem properties do exist around town, but the city board of commissioners collectively is unsure whether just those considered health or safety hazards should be targeted or also ones that simply are unsightly.
While Commissioner Jon Cawley, for one, believes the city government shouldn’t be “policing aesthetics” and instead ought to focus on cases posing a threat, others say it might be difficult to separate the two. The public needs assurance that the rules are being enforced fairly for all, officials pointed during Thursday night’s discussion.
“I feel that everything should be consistent,” the board’s Steve Yokeley said, although he does place health and safety at the top of the list.
The municipality can’t be “selective” about which minimum-housing rules it chooses to enforce, Commissioner Scott Graham agreed.
Meanwhile, Dean Brown, another board member who also volunteers in a county economic-development role, is concerned about dilapidated properties that an industrial prospect might see upon arriving in town which would “turn them off.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, board members agreed that more study is needed, which City Manager Barbara Jones said could include staff members identifying possible revisions to the housing code. Another part of this process, which could be settled in September — based on the discussion — will include providing clear-cut guidance to city codes-enforcement personnel on the priorities.
“You have to be cautious in your approach,” said Richard Smith, a planning expert with an out-of-town firm assisting Mount Airy with codes-enforcement and other functions under a privatization arrangement.
Smith added at Thursday night’s meeting that if policies aren’t well-defined, “people are going to see you as picking and choosing.”
With possible revisions to the minimum housing codes noted, Yokeley pointed out that the existing regulations already seem to emphasize health and safety over appearance.
Wrong Message Sent?
Commissioner Cawley had asked that the discussion on minimum housing regulations be placed on the agenda for last Thursday’s meeting because of an apparent misunderstanding arising from an earlier session.
The issue had been discussed at a city government planning retreat during the winter — in which an ex-police officer and experienced codes-enforcer with Benchmark outlined plans for a stepped-up approach. Cawley said he later heard the message coming out of the retreat was that the planning staff had been “directed to renovate the city.”
Cawley said he believed another talk was needed to clarify the board’s position.
The councilman has said that violations he considers most critical involve homes where windows, ceilings or other fixtures might be broken or caved-in, as well as situations in which neglected properties can harbor vermin that puts neighbors at risk.
Yet there also seems to be room for appearance considerations as well.
Brown is concerned about the impression made “as you drive into Mount Airy and you’re bringing somebody in who’s thinking about building a factory here and you see three or four rundown houses.” People using their front porches for storage or exhibiting “junk piles” also were cited by Brown.
“Maybe peeling paint or something might not be one of the things I’ve thought about,” said Brown, who added that he had noticed progress being made regarding various problem properties since the winter retreat.
Board members say the priorities they ultimately pinpoint must be fair and balanced in the eyes of the public.
“We have to decide ourselves which ones are more important,” Graham said, and provide enforcement personnel with “a little better guidance.”
“At some point, it does become very subjective,” Cawley said, with the enforcement depending on what is being looked at and through whose eyes.
“I don’t care what we do, there’s always going to be some complaints,” Yokeley said, “no matter what level we take it to.”
It was mentioned that the state of the economy might be why some properties are in disrepair or being neglected.
“I understand that some people just can’t afford” improvements, said Yokeley, who mentioned that he has discussed with the city manager the possible establishment of a fund to help owners make repairs.
Also at Thursday night’s meeting, the Mount Airy commissioners took action regarding a city appointee to the Northwestern Regional Library Board of Trustees.
Kelly Merritt was approved for a six-year term on that board, which will expire on June 30, 2018. Merritt is replacing Steve Scott, who has served the maximum-allowable time as a library trustee.
The Mount Airy Public Library is part of the Northwestern Regional system.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.