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Revised rule would broaden reach for city to clean up streets, yards

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The Columbus City Council seems poised to finally approve a revised city ordinance aimed at getting unlicensed, inoperable and junk vehicles out of sight and off public or private property.

After several months of tinkering, the council voted 6-1 this week to approve an ordinance that establishes a long process to tow cars at the expense of the vehicle’s owner or the occupant of the property where a dilapidated or unlicensed vehicle has been sitting for all to see.

“This allows the city to start conversations, issue warnings and actual citations,” said Jeff Logston, the city attorney and executive director of administration.

There already is an abandoned-vehicle law on the books, but this would broaden the reach of city officials to clean up streets, parking areas and residential yards of unlicensed or inoperable vehicles, Logston said.

The ordinance passed its first reading at a City Council meeting Tuesday night. A second vote and possible final passage could occur at the council’s next meeting, Feb. 4.

District 4 council member Frank Miller cast the only vote against the ordinance, saying the proposal needs more work and may be trying to fix a problem that rarely crops up.

It passed 6-1 over his objections.

Mayor Kristen Brown described the junk-vehicle law as a first step in a broader push she hopes can rid other properties of trash, out-of-control vegetation and debris.

“It’s not an everyday complaint; but for people who are impacted, it’s a big issue,” Brown said. “They feel invested emotionally in it, and they think it drives the (property) values in their whole area down.”

Here’s how the proposal would work:

Any vehicle that’s been abandoned, or that’s without current license plates or that’s inoperable, would be affected. It would also have to be in plain view on public or private property.

If nothing happened in a month, the city could write a citation, and the owner or property’s occupant would have another 10 days to take care of things.

Finally, the city could sue in court to tow the car and charge the offender for that expense and storage fees.

Vehicles in a “legally conforming garage, carport or other enclosure” are considered to be out of the public view and exempt from enforcement, according to wording in the ordinance.

Brad Grayson, president of the Bartholomew County Landlord Association, said the ordinance was poorly conceived, awkwardly written and unnecessary. He said the ordinance would allow the city to seize private property with too little notice.

“I’m concerned we’re becoming the fashion police,” he added in remarks made to the City Council. “This is a nebulous problem,” and it could create a burden for poor residents who hope to fix their cars but don’t have the cash to do so right away.

Logston said residents would have several layers of notice before losing a vehicle, and the vehicles could be towed only after a lawsuit was filed in court and a judge issued an order allowing seizure.

“This would be a lengthy process that could take months,” the city attorney said.

The mayor said an ordinance to tow inoperable and unlicensed cars is necessary even though some people argue the problem isn’t widespread in Columbus.

Brown acknowledged that the city has never tried to count how many junk cars there are on city streets or dotting private property.

“We need to have laws regardless of the frequency,” the mayor said, comparing the new ordinance to much more serious laws against murder, which she said also occurs infrequently in Bartholomew County.

The ordinance makes an exception for vehicles on property used as a vehicle-repair business.

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