March 31, 2013

Code crackdown

Police warn property owners of violations

Rachel Brown

— Neighbors who don’t mow their grass, residents who use their lawns for junkyards, land owners who allow their property to fall into disrepair — under a revamped initiative to tidy up properties inside Dalton’s city limits, all could face fines if they don’t correct their behavior after a warning.

Dalton had a building inspection and code enforcement department addressing those kinds of issues for years, but that department was merged with Whitfield County’s building department in 2008 and city officials weren’t happy with how code enforcement was being handled under the merged department.

At the beginning of the month, the city began code enforcement with a full-time police officer with the authority to issue notices, citations and orders to appear in court if the issues aren’t resolved.

Police department spokesman Chris Cooke said the crackdown is about more than just having the city “look nice.”

“Research suggests that areas where codes governing the appearance of residential and business property are enforced experience less crime than areas where property is neglected,” Cooke said. “The so-called ‘broken windows theory’ states that areas where buildings are allowed to fall into disrepair experience more crime because criminals feel there is less order and residents are less vigilant.”

Code Enforcement Officer Chris Cochran said property owners so far have been cooperative, quickly addressing issues he’s brought to their attention. With the exception of some abandoned buildings that have been allowed to fall into dangerous disrepair, most of the infractions are minor and have to do with garbage sitting around or fallen limbs and trees in people’s yards that have been allowed to sit around a long time, he said.

Any police officer can take on code enforcement duties, but Cochran is the only one assigned to the job full time. He said his initial approach is always to talk to the property owner, issue a notice of violation stating what code was violated, and explain how to correct it.

“Most people are pretty receptive to it,” Cochran said. Some, he said, don’t even realize they’ve violated the code.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who pushed for the stricter enforcement, said city property owners have different considerations than do those who live in the county. Yards that are not kept up can result in lower property values for a neighborhood, and there are, in some cases, safety issues, such as trash or brush blocking visibility at an intersection.

“We’re strong property rights people, but the people next to you have property rights, too,” he said. “Obviously, we’re not overbearing with that, but if you’re not going to keep your property up, you probably need to live in a much more rural area on a farm or whatever.”

Because serious code enforcement is relatively new, Municipal Court officials are still working out how much property owners will be required to pay for various kinds of fines, officials said. As of early last week, the only citations issued were for dilapidated buildings, Cochran said.

Under the more aggressive enforcement, residents are welcome to report their neighbors or others with issues they believe pose a hazard to the police department (there is a complaint form at Cochran estimated he’s received 20 complaints so far and has followed up on close to the same number with issues he’s found on his own. However, there are some complaints that turned out to be unfounded, he said.

Pennington said officials researched different ways to enforce the city code and found that cities who used police officers rather than an administrative office out of City Hall were more effective. Rome is among the Georgia cities with police doing the job. Ellijay is among cities with another department providing enforcement.

Dalton’s city code is online at For those who don’t have the time or inclination to read the entire code, Cochran suggests keeping their property neat and relatively garbage- and debris-free overall.

“A lot of it has been overgrown bushes and grass and stuff on properties that aren’t being taken care of very much,” he said. “People need to keep their grass and weeds cut below 12 inches. Keep limbs and trash and everything picked up from your yard. Put your garbage can away after the trash has been emptied from it. Any kind of old junk, old appliances or anything that people may have stored outside that’s a violation and they need to move those to the dump or inside where they’re safer.”

Other violations include graffiti, illegal signage, “public nuisances” and unregistered or inoperable vehicles left on property.

“The code enforcement unit will also work with owners or lien holders to ensure that abandoned or foreclosed properties stay in compliance with the municipal code,” Cooke said. “The police department will be using the guidelines of the International Property and Maintenance Code, which was adopted as a city ordinance in 2009.”

Chief Jason Parker said in a press release the initiative is about improving safety.

“There are several enforcement and abatement remedies within the city’s ordinances, but we would prefer property owners to proactively work with us to correct problems,” Parker said.