City Blog’s Mark McCarter is riding along with various city employees for an inside look at how they do their jobs. This edition: Riding shotgun with Keith Atchley, Code Enforcement Manager
The house and property define “eyesore.” Like that old line, where you look up the word in the dictionary, and there’s this picture.
Keith Atchley hangs a right down a narrow street, pulls up in front of the house and we climb from his Ford SUV. This eyesore is made even worse by its location. It has a steady stream of passersby on a major road and it is opposite a property easily worth $500,000.
Careful not to step onto the property itself, Atchley points out the garage, caved in like a dented can by a fallen tree. He notes the illegal mish-mash of sagging fence, of wood planks, chicken wire and chain-link.
It is a vacant house owned by a man who has been obvious in his disdain for regulations – and his former neighbors — despite many citations and several court appearances, and despite his financial ability to have purchased other houses.
It’s just one stop on a journey he takes me that will never be mistaken for the Spring Tour of Homes. It’s one property among many that can be defined as an eyesore, one saga of many indifferent scofflaw owners who create problems and challenges for Atchley and his Code Enforcement Department.
How it works
The Code Enforcement staff, which works under the umbrella of the Community Development office, has five area inspectors, five compliance officers and three clerical staff members under Atchley’s leadership.
“We enforce the code because it protects your investment. If you’re a property owner, you want the value protected.”
They will issue some 9,000-10,000 notices a year for violations of eight items in the Code of Ordinances. The violations would include unsafe buildings, substandard housing, junk and litter, tall grass and weeds, inoperable vehicles on a right of way, abatement of public nuisances, graffiti and problems with fences and swimming pools. Atchley estimates that half of the citations issued are related to grass and weeds.
“We don’t want to be the neighborhood bully and go out and kick you around,” Atchley says, steering us down a shady Five Points street. “We’re asking you to comply. We’re looking for voluntary compliance.”
He stops in front of a house where owner compliance has been refused– all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court.
“The judge said, ‘If you come back again, I’ll drop the hammer on you,’” Atchley says.
Somebody needs to drop a weed-eater on this property. The overgrowth on the inhabited property has been defiantly untrimmed. Three cars, at least one of which seems undriveable, are parked by an adjacent alley.
Meanwhile, less than 100 yards away, rests a house listing for more than $300,000 – in eyeshot of the eyesore for which another citation is coming.
“We enforce the code because it protects your investment,” Atchley says. “If you’re a property owner, you want the value protected.”
While this owner obstinately pleads his right for a “natural” look, a majority do comply, Atchley says. So often, there are extenuating circumstances – vacations, illnesses, other life changes. Many homes in violation belong to elderly and retired citizens who don’t have the wherewithal to adequately maintain the property.
“There are a lot of people who have a justifiable reason and we try to work with them,” he says. The inspectors can allow a week’s extension on tall grass – eight inches in platted properties is the limit – and there is an appeals process for violations other than grass and weeds.
Residential vs. Commercial
The more substantial problems arise with houses; Atchley says there are few incidents involving commercial property or apartments.
Homes must be safe for inhabitation. That includes having utility service. They may not be in obvious disrepair. Simply having one of Crayola’s less-appealing colors as exterior paint does not a violation make.
“Most of the questions I get arise from the immediate concerns in a community about the condition of houses and rental properties. Especially vacant houses,” Atchley says. “Everybody’s a little afraid of vacant houses. People break in and they attract illegal activity.”
He is driving us through a north Huntsville neighborhood where crime has been a problem, but there is a revitalization through new homes being built for first-time owners.
“We want to help this neighborhood,” he says. “We were losing the area from a crime standpoint. Sometimes we have to put the brakes on. We’re focusing on getting this neighborhood back.”
Atchley slows down in front of one home with a decaying car out front, saying, “We’ve had this guy in court in so many times …,” then points to another. “I knocked on their door and got called a lot of names you don’t want to hear.”
Eight years as the Code Enforcement Manager, 26 years total with the city, he knows you can’t please everyone.
“We have a lot of people who don’t like us,” Atchley says. “You have to tell people, ‘You have to fix your house,’ and that’s not a good way to start a conversation.”
Report an Issue
The Code Inspection Office, in the City of Huntsville’s Department of Community Development, focuses on eight ordinances in its enforcement efforts.
Inspectors typically write 9,000-10,000 citations a year for enforcement violations. More than half are related to high grass and weeds and according to the Code Enforcement Management Manager Keith Atchley, the citations are typically met with compliance.
Citizens concerned about ordinance violations can contact the office at (256) 427-5400 or utilize the Huntsville Connect app, available via the web or for download on your mobile device.
Here are the ordinances enforced:
Junk, Litter and Inoperable Vehicles: Regulates the storage of items on private property that are not in operating condition but with high visibility
Grass and Weeds: Grass and weeds must be kept cut below 8 inches on platted properties, below 12 inches on non-platted properties. A violator is issued a 14-day notice to cut the grass. If it is not cut, a citation may be issued for Municipal Court and the city may cut the grass and bill the owner for costs incurred.
Standard Housing: It sets minimum standards for maintaining residential structures, including assurances that utilities are activated if the property is inhabited.
Non-residential Buildings: Establishes minimum standards for the maintenance of buildings used for purposes other than residential.
Standard Unsafe Building Abatement: Applies to any building found to have unsafe conditions.
Swimming Pools: Regulates abandoned, neglected or non-maintained pools.
Fences: Regulates maintenance of fences and prohibits use of electric fencing, barbed wire, razor wire or concertina on residential properties.
Graffiti: Prohibits the application of graffiti to any public or private building, structure or property.