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Legislation on old barns to get vote on Sept. 28

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Some old barns in St. Charles County may be saved under legislation currently being considered. (thinkstock.com)

Old barns in St. Charles County may become less endangered if the County Council passes changes to the county’s property maintenance code and its enforcement.

The council gave a first reading to a bill at its Sept. 13 meeting that would amend the code as well as enforcement and proceedings that would particularly apply to rural and property zoned agricultural.  The council may formally adopt the bill at its Sept. 28 meeting.

The code regulates the condition of residential and commercial property and deals with such issues as building occupancy, tall grass, rubbish and peeling paint. The proposed changes mean that the county may cast a less strict and watchful eye on dilapidated old barns, farm equipment and older buildings, and lowers fines for violations.

The changes also amends the role of the county’s Neighborhood Preservation Division, giving the county’s Division of Building Code Enforcement a bigger hand in code enforcement.

Residents voiced a litany of complaints about the Neighborhood Preservation Division’s enforcement at the council’s May 26 work session. Some residents said they were given little time to correct possible code violations. Another said a building on their property was boarded up and personal items were removed.

Council Chairman Joe Brazil (District 1), who called the work session, was upset about the condemnation of old barns, some of which are more than 100 years old. Councilman Mike Klinghammer (District 6) said violation notices that the county sends out needed to be rewritten.

Brazil and Councilman Dave Hammond (District 4), who is a former county building official, along with other county officials came up with proposed changes to the existing code to address those complaints.

Drew A. Heffner, associate county counselor,  who outlined the bill at the Sept. 13 meeting, said that a major change is replacing the word “condemned” on structures cited as safety threat and unfit for occupancy.  Instead, structures will be declared “uninhabitable/unusable” and the decision will be made by an official with the Division of Building Code Enforcement in writing.

Heffner said the amendments also include an exemption for property actively used for agricultural purposes for farming or hunting. The exempt structure also cannot be within 500 feet of land that is zoned residential.

If approved by the council, fines for violations would also be reduced from $1,000 for each violation and possible imprisonment to $200 and no imprisonment, he said.  A new violation is considered after each week if it’s not fixed as opposed to each day.

Only unsecured doors, windows or holes large enough to allow entrance into the building will be allowed to be boarded up if the building has to be closed, the bill states. Another possible change involves appeals related to violation of the property code, which would be heard by three members of the county building commission appointed by building commission chairperson. The new bill also allows and exemption for outdoor storage of farm equipment and fencing on land actively used for farming and property owners can keep farm-related trailer and tractors on their property.  Anything removed from the property must be digitally photographed and demolition orders can be appealed to the county’s director of community development.

Hammond said the bill shifts responsibility for many code enforcement issues to the county’s building department. He said he never understood the need to create a neighborhood preservation department to maintain property values.  The county may be able to address the issue during budget discussions next year, he said.

“This has kind of muddied the waters because it actually created two building officials with the same area of expertise within community development (department), which is not something that occurs a lot in other cities and local governments that I’m aware of,” Hammond said.

Klinghammer said the county has already begun implementing changes include “kinder and gentler” violation letters to residents that are “not nearly as onerous and heavy-handed.”  He said eliminating the word “condemned” is a step because the word as several meanings.  He said it didn’t mean to residents that the county was “taking property away from them if they didn’t cut the grass.”

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