Originally created 09/18/00

City cites residents for trash



It's a tale of two trash heaps.

One, according to city officials, existed in the form of overgrown grass and dilapidated materials in W.L. Beard's yard at 1414 Ranch Drive and warranted a citation.

The other, according to Mr. Beard, lies in various spots on private and vacant lots surrounding his neighborhood.

Mr. Beard said he felt his citation was hypocritical in light of the nearby eyesores, including illegally dumped appliances, tires discarded in the woods and overgrown grass in other yards.

But code enforcement Manager Pam Costabile said that it is policy for field inspectors responding to complaints to sweep the entire area and issue citations to property owners in violation of an appearance ordinance.

"There's only so many sections you can do in a day, so some of it may not get picked up as quickly as some people would like," she said.

Mr. Beard's is one of the 2,762 active cases that the Augusta-Richmond County License and Inspection Department is handling.

Officials from the department inspect property throughout the county, usually on the basis of complaints, and issue warning letters to property owners to clean up their land.

If the property is not brought up to code within 10 days, owners can face up to six months' probation and a $1,000 fine.

The local code states that owners of property, including vacant lots, cannot permit grass, weeds or underbrush to grow and accumulate or allow debris or building material to be dumped "so as to constitute an unclean, unhealthy, unsanitary, unsightly, filthy .ƒ.ƒ. or offensive condition."

And the number of property owners being held accountable to that code has increased significantly in recent years, Ms. Costabile said.

"Since the (Augusta-Richmond County) consolidation, we are doing over three times the amount of work," she said. "We're just enforcing codes stricter."

Still, with the increase in caseload, the department employs the same number of inspectors - eight inspectors and one environmental code enforcer - as before the push.

"Compared to other cities comparable in size - most of them have databases, and they have more people working," Ms. Costabile said. "That's been our biggest problem."

The department is constructing its own database to track cases and court rulings of offenders.

When the department completes that task, which Ms. Costabile said she expected would happen early next year, field inspectors will be able to do twice as much work and increase the number of citations.

Ms. Costabile said it has been a challenge to keep pace with all the cases but that partnerships with local and state governments have alleviated some of the burden.

"You get eight people for the entire Richmond County, you're not going to be able to get it all up," she said. "That's why we're working with the community and with the neighborhood associations - so they can be our eyes and ears."

In the mayor's 1998 election campaign, cleaning up the area's litter and debris problem was heavily emphasized. Since then, the commission has made the codes stronger, Ms. Costabile said.

As a result of such efforts, more property owners are being cited and the department has referred 350 cases this year to the court system. Many of the sentences are reduced or dismissed if property owners reach compliance.

But even as Mr. Beard worked to bring his yard up to code, he questioned if the same scrutiny was paid to government-owned property in the area.

Any complaints regarding the appearance of county property are added to the Public Works Department's schedule of maintenance projects, said Michael Greene, assistant director for operations at the Richmond County Public Works Department.

Work crews clean certain sections of the county at one time, he said. The department also cleans vacant lots that the owners have not brought up to code for the inspections department.

Property owners are billed $240 an hour for the work, and if they don't pay a lien is placed on that land parcel.

On top of those duties, the department is responsible for maintenance projects in the county, including drainage issues and sidewalk work, Mr. Green said.

Appearance complaints are added to the list of projects in the order they come in and according to how they compare to priority of other projects, he said.

"If we don't have a crew in that area and it's overgrown, we'll expedite the work order," he said.

Mr. Beard has been working to fix his yard to a level that will meet the county's approval. He said that when someone came in to remove the mattresses and rusty washing machines that sit across the street, he would feel better about paying his citation.

"(Then) I'd be glad to comply," he said. "I'm going to have to anyway - they're going to make me."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.