FD code change is proposed to provide easier enforcement

A proposed code change would make it easier for city officials to take action against certain kinds of rundown properties, but the majority of homeowners have nothing to fear from it, according to Fort Dodge leaders.

The change involves switching to a newer version of the International Property Maintenance Code and streamlining the process of applying the standards of that code to owner-occupied homes.

”It’s a big change when it comes to enforcement, but in the big scheme of things it’s a very small tweak,” said City Manager David Fierke.

”That whole fear that this is going to open up a Pandora’s box and we’re somehow going to start going after people – we don’t see it as happening because there isn’t a groundswell of complaints now,” he added.

The City Council will consider giving preliminary approval to the change when it meets Monday in the Municipal Building, 819 First Ave. S. The council’s work will begin at 5:30 p.m. with a workshop discussion, followed by the business meeting at 6 p.m.

During that business meeting, the council will consider granting preliminary approval to updating the property maintenance code, the building code, the plumbing code, the mechanical code, the fire prevention code, the electrical code, and the fuel and gas code.

The code updates are of particular interest to contractors, but people who aren’t in the building trades may not notice anything different if the updates are eventually approved by the council.

The property maintenance code now applies to all buildings in the city. However, if the problem building is an owner-occupied home and the effort to get the situation corrected ends up in Magistrate Court, city officials must meet an additional burden of proof to win their case.

Under current city law, the officials must prove the owner-occupied house is a public nuisance for one of these reasons:

It is a menace to the general health and safety of the community.

It is a fire hazard.

It is unsafe for occupancy.

It is insufficiently or inadequately maintained.

Stacey Hamilton, the city’s neighborhood wellness coordinator, said those four criteria are not clearly defined. She added that people who live near the problem property would have to testify to help the city win its case.

The proposed change would eliminate the use of those four criteria and rely on definitions included in the property maintenance code. Hamilton said that code clearly defines violations and is easy to enforce.

Fierke said city inspectors are not out actively looking for property maintenance code violations at owner-occupied homes. He said enforcement actions are taken only in response to complaints.

In 2013, there were such complaints, he said.

When a complaint is received, an inspector is sent to see if there is indeed a problem. If a problem, such as an accumulation of junk, is confirmed the property owner is sent a letter directing them to remedy the situation. Homeowners are generally given 30 to 60 days to correct a problem.

”We will try and work with people,” Hamilton said.

She said if the homeowner doesn’t comply with request to clean up the situation, the city will file a complaint in Magistrate Court.