Council tackles junked vehicles

City officials are revising a local ordinance to encourage private property owners to remove abandoned or non-working vehicles.

Columbus City Council members gave the first of two needed approvals on Tuesday, but questioned the feasibility of requiring private property owners to comply and whether the ordinance was clear enough to mandate compliance.

Mary Ferdon, executive director of administration and community development, said the revisions being considered are a followup to the 2016 changes the council made about large-vehicle parking and storage, approved in December.

Then, Ferdon told council members the city wants to prohibit inoperable or unlicensed vehicles from being kept on private or public property with the exception of being in a carport, garage or other enclosure.

Fred Barnett, the city’s code enforcement officer, said the city has about 150 locations with one or more abandoned, inoperable or unlicensed vehicles on private property that have been reported to the city.

Barnett provided photos taken from an alley behind California Street showing wrecked and damaged vehicles in yards with weeds growing around them. He said he found 12 vehicles that could fall into the ordinance enforcement category in the alley behind California Street alone.

The ordinance adds the city code enforcement officer in addition to police as an individual who may investigate complaints, issue compliance letters and issue fines. It requires vehicles to be on paved driveways and does not allow them to be in yards, except for small amounts of time when they may be temporarily parked there while being sold.

The ordinance also tightens loopholes in the ordinance that allowed individuals to try to mask that a vehicle was unlicensed or inoperable, such as placing cardboard over the empty license plate holder, or property owners who place a “for sale” sign on the vehicle and leave it there indefinitely.

Barnett explained he is not allowed to go on private property without the owner’s permission, but can observe property from the public right-of-way, which includes alleys, sidewalks and city streets. By adding code enforcement to the ordinance provisions, he estimated the time it takes to investigate a complaint to citing the owner will be reduced from months to a maximum of 40 days.

Penalties for violating the ordinance call for a $250 fine for the first violation, increasing to $2,500 for the fourth violation and $5,000 for additional violations. Residents may appeal their fines to the local court system, the ordinance states.

Councilman Frank Jerome questioned whether it was fair to require residents to have vehicles on a paved surface when some driveways in Columbus are unpaved.

Barnett and the council members who worked on the ordinance said city code enforcement understood the difference between a paved or a gravel driveway, and would not be citing people who have gravel driveways, even though gravel is technically not allowed under city ordinance.

City attorney Alan Whitted said if a resident took the city to court over the issue, the city would abide by the judge’s ruling and amend the ordinance.

Councilwoman Elaine Wagner questioned the parameters of the definition of a vehicle being in a garage, carport or other enclosure, questioning what the word enclosure encompasses. Barnett said that would refer to privacy fencing.

Barnett said the city estimates that 70 percent of the vehicles being targeted are on rental properties and their landlords will be the ones receiving the citations about the abandoned vehicles.

To ease the transition to new rules about inoperable vehicles, the city is considering starting a program designed to encourage violators to let the city help them remove the vehicles before they are fined.

The Inoperable Vehicle Abatement Program will be a way for local property owners to avoid city fines and provide an incentive to clean up property and get rid of abandoned vehicles. By presenting proof of ownership and clear title, the vehicle owner signs a waiver and the city will pay the towing fee to remove the vehicle from the property, Ferdon said. The proposal calls for vehicle owners to receive the full metal value of the scrapped vehicle.

Ferdon said the city is working on agreements with local towing firms to provide the service. More details about the initiative, and how the city might fund it, are expected after the council’s next meeting at 6 p.m. Sept. 5.

What's next

The revisions to the abandoned vehicle ordinance will be considered for the second and final time at the Columbus City Council’s next meeting at 6 p.m. Sept. 5.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.