Cambridge seeks citizen feedback on code enforcement

City leaders want to hear from the public on the city’s enforcement of the city code involving residential parking, outdoor storage, sidewalk snow removal and other concerns that can impact a neighborhood.

They are also considering if code should continue to be enforced by complaint or if the city should take a more proactive approach and develop a new enforcement position.

The Cambridge City Council discussed the issue of code enforcement, potential changes and the possibility of hiring a code enforcement officer at its Feb. 18 meeting. The council ended up directing city staff to develop a citizens survey for the March issue of the city’s quarterly newsletter, The Chronicle.

The survey will address code enforcement and include background of the code enforcement position, a section asking people to comment on how they think the city council is doing and a part for suggestions.

At the meeting, City Planner Marcia Westover provided a staff report containing background of code enforcement concerns and presented pie charts highlighting nuisance categories and reported complaints.

Public nuisances — junk and debris, parking, inoperable or abandoned vehicles, long grass or weeds and other blight — are covered by code enforcement.

During the council’s discussion, Chris Caulk said he didn’t believe the code needs to be changed. He noted many property owners have already spent good money bringing their properties up to the current regulations.

Lisa Iverson seemed fine with leaving the code as is, too, and she, like Caulk, voiced interest in talking further about the code enforcement position.

Not in favor of the position was Howie Lewis. He said citizens should feel empowered to handle issues on their own, but they should be kept accountable by having to include their names on complaint forms. Government shouldn’t always intervene, he added, but it can be available if a conflict arises.

“As a taxpayer here, I am not willing to pay for a code enforcement officer,” Lewis continued. “I think people ignore overly restrictive enforcement when people can take care of issues themselves.”

However, Corey Bustrom voiced support of the city developing a compliance officer position to directly work with the public. He said he doesn’t have a problem with the complaint-driven approach, either.

“I don’t feel people need to sign their names and addresses on a form, for fear of retaliation,” he said.

According to City Administrator Lynda Woulfe, the city has been in “reaction mode” in its enforcement of the city code since 2002. She asked if the city wants to enforce it equally, without exclusively relying on complaints.

“The biggest complaint (from residents now) is, ‘Why me when there are 60 other property owners doing the same thing?’” Woulfe noted.

Mayor Marlys Palmer said code enforcement can still be complaint-driven, and officers can enforce the code without mentioning that a complaint was fielded. The focus shouldn’t be, “Who turned me in?” she noted.

“I worry about the extra vehicles,” Palmer said of one parking concern. “I think a lot of it is for public safety. And it’s not just the vehicles, there are other issues. This is a wonderful opportunity to be citizen friendly.”

The council also weighed in on the 24-hour time frame associated with clearing snow from sidewalks. Are people given enough time to clear their sidewalks, especially between consecutive snowfalls?

If it snows on Monday, residents have 24 hours to clear the sidewalk. But, she asked: If it snows again on Wednesday, does the 24-hour removal period start over again?

“The intent of the current code is unclear,” she said.

Palmer supported a commonsense approach and a look at what is humanly possible. She also requested feedback from city staff for future discussions.

 

Background

According to the city staff report provided by Westover:

Code enforcement concerns elevated in the early 2000s, when the city began to address a plethora of questions and issues tied to related violations.

Residents and businesses complained the city started to look “trashy.” The city amended the zoning ordinance in 2003 and brought more staff on board to tackle the rise in code enforcement issues, according to the city staff report.

In 2006-07, the council weighed in on the issue of oversized vehicles, recreational vehicles, parking surfaces and impervious surface coverage, and the city code was changed to reflect these discussions. One talking point was allowing a certain number of vehicles — whether a recreational vehicle, sport vehicle or passenger vehicle — to be stored outdoors if they are on an improved, impervious surface.

“All vehicles parked or stored outdoors shall be on an improved surface equivalent to or better than that of the established driveway,” the city code indicated at that time.

In 2010, a property owner found in violation of parking on a crushed concrete surface was brought before district court, and a settlement conference was held with Judge P. Hunter Anderson. He determined the language in the city code was ambiguous and said there is no standard defined in the code to base a decision on what is “equivalent to or better than.”

Following up with the judge’s request to discuss and re-define the language, the council again discussed the parking regulations and refined the language to read, “All vehicles parked or stored outdoors shall be on a bituminous or concrete surface or of the same material as that of the established driveway.”

The city code now reflects this parking surface issue, and the property owner in district court was required to remove the crushed concrete and install an impervious surface.

The city has found, through the League of Minnesota Cities, that a well-written and enforced city nuisance program works best. Enforcement of ordinances and the abatement of nuisances have led to increased property values and a more attractive destination, according to city reports.

 

2014 street 

improvement project

The council approved plans and specifications and authorized advertisement for bids for the 2014 Street Improvement project, which will affect the following streets:

  • South Cleveland, South Davis, South Emerson and  South Fillmore from Highway 95 to Second Avenue Southeast.
  • South Garfield from Highway 95 to Eighth Avenue Southeast.
  • Second Avenue Southeast from S. Railroad to S. Garfield.
  • North Cleveland from Highway 95 to Second Avenue Northeast.
  • North Davis from Highway 95 to Third Avenue Northeast.
  • Second Avenue Northeast from North Cleveland to North Emerson.
  • Fourth and Fifth Avenue Northeast from North Main to railroad.
  • Calhoun Place Northeast from Fourth Avenue Northeast to North Main.
  •  Alleys between North Cleveland, North Emerson, Highway 95 and Second Avenue Northeast.

The improvements include replacing existing and installing new utilities, reconstructing streets and alleys, milling and overlaying streets and installing some concrete sidewalks and some additional street lighting.

Council members also approved a resolution designating no parking on Garfield Street South from Highway 95 to Eight Avenue Southeast during the project.

 

In other news:

  • With the remodel of the City Center Mall space for the Senior Enrichment Center in full swing, the council agreed to demolish the city-owned Senior Center building on Third Avenue and seek proposals for the vacant lot.

Solely voting against was Lewis, who voiced interest in having a contractor assess what it would cost to repair the building for a possible teen center. For the rest of the council, members found that it and its many deficiencies were not worth the time and money ($50,000 to $60,000) to bring it up to code if it were remodeled. Significant parking issues already exist in that neighborhood, Woulfe said. Catholic Charities will be out of the building by June, she added.

  • The council renewed the Sun Opta industrial wastewater permit for 2014-15. This marks the fifth adoption of the agreement between the city and Sun Opta, which has performed well with no significant violations during the 2012-13 permit period, according to a city staff report.
  •  The council approved quotes for the construction of a softball field and a little league at Sandquist Park.
  • Woulfe reviewed the following priorities that council members established as future projects at a Feb. 10 retreat: additional ice sheets, library, community center, city park improvements, METO (from state hospital) property, joint law enforcement center and redevelopment of Highway 95 strip and downtown corridor.
  • Council members accepted work and authorized a partial payment of $590,882 to Robert L. Carr Co. for the wastewater treatment facility improvements project.
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