St. Charles County officials may cast a less watchful eye on dilapidated old barns, high grass or peeling paint on old farm houses on property zoned agricultural.
The County Council is leaning toward changes in the county’s property maintenance code as it applies to rural and agricultural property after hearing a litany of complaints at a work session in May. Councilmembers and county officials are expected to meet to come up with changes in the code and in enforcement by county inspectors.
Councilmember Joe Brazil (District 2) called the work session because he said he had received many “very severe complaints” from residents about the county Neighborhood Preservation Department’s enforcement of the county’s property maintenance code in rural areas.
The code regulates the condition of residential and commercial property and dealing with such issues as building occupancy, tall grass, rubbish and peeling paint.
Brazil said there may be a breakdown in interpretation of the code and in its enforcement. In all, more than 30 residents turned out for the work session. Brazil asked four property owners to discuss their property issues with the department.
Dale Schaper, one of the residents, complained about the short time he was given in notices from the county to correct situations at an old house. Others complained about property being boarded up and personal items being taken off their property.
Brazil questioned Art Genasci, director of the department, about “sweeps” of inspectors who drove through parts of the county and issuing violation notices.
Genasci said inspectors had repeatedly met with property owners and were applying the code as written, particularly in dealing with old structures that may fall down and pose a safety threat. The council could change the code and limit the discretion of inspectors, he said.
Brazil was upset that residents complained about receiving letters condemning old barns, some of which were more than 100 years old.
“It’s wrong,” Brazil said. “There unsafe? Unsafe to who – trespassers? That’s ludicrous.” He said the county hadn’t been strictly enforcing the code in agriculturally zoned areas until recently.
Councilmember Mike Klinghammer (District 6) said there was a need to rewrite the violation notices that the county sends out.
“On the receiving end, it’s hard to know what it is the county wants you to do,” he said.
Some residents agreed.
“If you’re going to check on us, you need to check on everybody in the county,” Jacob Schwede, who along with Allen and Dennis Schwede, outlined the letters they had received for taking down structures and an old barn on their farm along Schwede Road. The barn was built in 1872 and is part of the history of the farm and still used by cattle.
But Wayne Anthony, director of the county’s Community Development Department, said the sweeps often are conducted based on complaints. Anthony said the “rub” often comes with the increased urbanization of the county where other nearby property owners don’t see a falling down barn as “beneficial to their property values.”
Klinghammer and County Executive Steve Ehlmann said it’s a difficult job to strike a balance in more densely populated and rural areas in code enforcement; and Klinghammer acknowledged that the balance may be out of kilter for agricultural zoned areas.
Councilmember David Hammond (District 4) and a former county building official, offered to draft some written suggestions for code changes. Brazil said county officials could meet to discuss changes. The council could pass a new ordinance or amend the existing code to enact changes. But Ehlmann and other county officials wouldn’t go as far as agreeing to Brazil’s suggestion to not to prosecute further all property code violations in agriculturally zoned areas until changes are made.
Ehlmann and Genasci did say most of the violation notices don’t require prosecution and are resolved amicably with inspectors working with property owners.