By Carol Glassman
“What’s the point of allowing the Code Enforcement Department to tie up its time and resources on unenforceable circumstances like imposing liens… when it’s pointless to wallpaper homes with notices of violation?”
In the words of Marco Island City Councillor Larry Sacher, “For too long officers and the Board have had their hands tied – especially with renters.” Sacher was referring to one case that came before the October meeting of the Code Board that involved, “the renter from hell” who has received five years of repeated violations for parking an over-sized commercial vehicle in the driveway of a home he leases in a residential neighborhood. With some new and revised ordinances in the works, every property owner who rents a property will now become liable for his renter’s behavior. And that could really smart, especially in his wallet. If his renter manages to collect three violations within six months, the property owner will be classified as a nuisance property owner and invited to share the fines that could escalate into liens.
This ordinance will apply only to long term rentals as the Florida legislature rulings pre-empt laws on short term rentals.
As promised a few months ago, Daphne Bercher, paralegal from the law office of the city’s attorney Burt Saunders explained some of the ordinances she has been reviewing, refining, reinventing and initiating during a forum held following the monthly meeting on October 8.
Although the numbers of tenants occupying a property can pose problems, she said, you can’t discriminate against how many children people have. However, there is a need to define “excessive occupancy to property owners, to advise them of their responsibility for problem tenants.” She advised sending letters to the Board of Realtors and the Chamber of Commerce to inform them of the imminent changes, noting that the city records already form a data base of repeat property violators who should be warned in advance of the new and revised ordinances.
A violator who concerns Sacher, is the respondent who doesn’t bother to appear before the board, or comes in after receiving a violation “with a tale of woe after having ample time to comply.” The board does promise to listen to and consider honest cases of hardship, forcing one to wonder how they will be able to differentiate on short notice between the real and the fantastic, showing compassion to the deserving and punishing the blatant violators. Will the petitioner have to bring some kind of proof?
Another problem that could easily arise is absentee owners in distant lands who hand their responsibilities down to rental agencies: who will shoulder the blame here? Will new rental contracts have to be written between owners and their agents, to cover these problems?
In past years, the Code Board issued very strict and often financially stiff penalties to violators. After a few years, suddenly, a new crew of city councillors preached a different sermon: “Love thy neighbor and do not cause him financial hardship. This is a small island where everyone is your neighbor,” was heard repeatedly. “Be friendly, don’t issue big fines.” With change in the air, some of the same Code Board members were able to dance to a different tune without switching partners.
It is sufficient to make the bystander wonder: just a few weeks ago they were issuing fines of $250 per day for violations, and suddenly the same fines have a going price of $10 per day. Some properties were in foreclosure, their new owners were banks, renovating them for resale. They got the same break as the financially ruined who lost their homes. How do those poor folks who paid the huge fines of $250 per day feel now? Wait a minute: now, with the appearance of “new teeth,” stricter rules and stiffer fines are back. And does each and every city councillor, who appoints a member as his representative (sitting “at his pleasure”) to this code board, tell him or her which way he wants the pendulum to swing?
Bercher said she expects quick replies from City Council on the ordinances defining the relationships and responsibilities between property owners and nuisance renters and could see them taking effect within three months, depending on any revisions and changes. Another new ordinance would allow the city with due process to demolish a property that poses a health and safety risk, as there currently does not seem to be any legal precedent for this.
Since one of the Code Board cases involved the resolution by demolition of an ongoing public health and safety issue with a house at 923 North Barfield, it would seem that an ordinance was long overdue. Ken Mitchell, a neighbor on Laurel Court who has for 15 years been literally faced with this disintegrating property and even tried to purchase it himself to clean it up, wanted airtight assurance that if the new purchaser of the property did not demolish the eyesore then the city would. The prospective purchaser was given 60 days to finalize the details of the purchase followed by another two weeks to demolish the house, or all the accumulated fines and liens will be reinstated.
Bercher also gave notice of, “Four to five new ordinances and revisions to from five to seven existing ordinances.”
In addition, she is working on changes to existing permitting rules which would “open the lines of communication across city departments.” While neighbors might question “excessive occupancy” in their single family residential areas, they might also be wondering how these homes were permitted with multiple kitchens as well as sufficient bedrooms to support a hotel.
Moving the Code Enforcement Board staff and services from Community Development in City Hall back under the umbrella of the police department where it had been, might improve communications and continue to foster the cooperation previously enjoyed between the two departments.
Changes could be coming. How many and how far they go – that’s in the hands of the officials we elected.