Officials OK legislation to have abandoned, broken down vehicles removed

City leaders have approved changes to an ordinance intended to rid abandoned or inoperable vehicles from private properties throughout Columbus.

The Columbus City Council heard from individuals on both sides of the issue Tuesday, attracting a City Hall standing-room-only crowd, before approving the changes in a 6-1 vote. City Councilman Frank Jerome voted against the proposed changes, saying he felt the language within ordinance wasn’t clear enough.

The changes, which take effect next month, give city code enforcement officer Fred Barnett authority to investigate complaints of abandoned vehicles on private property and to issue fines.

An estimated 300 abandoned vehicles are located on more than 150 properties throughout Columbus, said Mary Ferdon, executive director of administration and community development.

Christopher Rutan, a landlord, property owner and coordinator of the 9th Street Neighborhood Park Watch, told council members he supports the ordinance, saying abandoned vehicles have been an ongoing problem in his neighborhood.

Rutan said he has made several complaints about abandoned vehicles over the past three years.

“We are trying to beautify our city. We are trying to keep everybody safe,” Rutan said.

Penalties for violating the ordinance call for a fine of up to $250 fine per vehicle for the first violation, with penalties gradually increasing with more violations. People who are cited have the opportunity to appeal the fine before the city’s Board of Works, according to the ordinance.

“We do need something with teeth in it,” said Sheryl Nulph, who spoke on behalf of the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Alliance. “Abandoned vehicles are a problem.”

Under the approved changes, Barnett will have authority to go onto private property and tag a vehicle, City Attorney Alan Whitted said.

“I think this is a good step forward resolving this issue,” City Councilwoman Elaine Wagner said.

“We hate junk cars, too,” said Brad Grayson, president of the Bartholomew County Landlord Association.

But he was among individuals who spoke in opposition to the ordinance, urging council members to delay the ordinance in order to clean up what he described as vague language.

Among Grayson’s concerns was that the ordinance doesn’t specify whether notification of an alleged violation would be done by certified letter, and that some of Barnett’s duties to address abandoned vehicles aren’t addressed as well.

“There’s nothing that says the landowner has to be notified for this,” Grayson said. “Please understand there are holes in this, and we tried to fix them.”

Grayson expressed disappointment in the ordinance’s passage.

“A lot of times when you (write) a law, it’s not what the law says, it’s what it forgot to say,” he said.

The changes to the ordinance tie in with the city’s inoperable vehicle abatement program, which provides incentives to residents to help clean up their properties, Ferdon said.

Under the program, which begins Oct. 1, the city will cover the cost of towing a vehicle when an individual presents proof of ownership, a clear title and signs a waiver.

The program will allow owners to receive the full metal value of the scrapped vehicle, Ferdon said.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com