Minnesota Cities Magazine

Two-Way Street: How Does Your City Approach Code Enforcement?

Brad Larson, assistant to the city administrator of SavageBRAD LARSON
Assistant to the City Administrator
City of Savage

Code enforcement is a core service of cities that can vary in process depending on a jurisdiction’s circumstances. Three common factors that influence a community’s process are the size of population, age of development, and goals for the future. In the City of Savage, codes are primarily enforced on a complaint basis. This approach works best for us for several reasons.

Mostly new properties
In 1990, Savage was home to 9,600 residents. The population ballooned to an estimated 27,500 in just two decades. This rapid, recent growth led to most of the homes and businesses being developed in the same era, so aging properties are less prevalent.

Existing structures are largely compliant with current codes and policies. Most importantly, we are not hearing or seeing a need for proactive code enforcement. In 2012, 93 percent of residents surveyed rated the condition and appearance of Savage as good or excellent.

Complaint-based approach
The benefits of a complaint-based approach include that it is efficient and cost effective because our staff address only the issues that are brought to our attention. Obvious health and safety issues are an exception, and staff will address those as soon as we observe them.

The complaint-based approach is also easily expanded upon. For example, the City Council recently decided to move forward with local implementation of the International Property Maintenance Code to broaden the types of issues staff can address when we receive complaints.

While a complaint-based approach is less demanding on resources, a drawback is that it may create code issues in certain areas. For example, if your neighbor keeps a couch and an old Buick on his front lawn and nobody complains, it must be okay for you to do it too, right? Of course, if a city staff member saw it, we’d address it. Otherwise, though, it could lead to more non-compliance.

Continuous assessment
Over time conditions will change, and expectations and future goals of the community will change. Whatever the approach selected, it is important to continuously assess your program to ensure you are meeting the expectations of your community and remain flexible to be able to meet these changes.

Community development director of Fridley, Scott HickokSCOTT HICKOK
Community Development Director
City of Fridley

In Fridley, we began practicing systematic code enforcement in 1997. Since then the city has benefitted from our proactive approach and we continue to develop the system to make it even more successful.

Pattern of enforcement
Though we respond to all types of violations at any time, our Community Development Department has made a pattern of focusing two consecutive years on residential enforcement and the following year on commercial/industrial enforcement.

Intensive property-by-property inspections are undertaken by one or two summer interns, who aim to cover the entire city over a period of 13 to 15 weeks. The rest of the year, code enforcement is shared among the entire Planning Division.

Increased awareness
A unified philosophy is important to the code enforcement team. We believe that decline is infectious: when one property goes downhill, the rest of the neighborhood can rapidly lose inspiration. But under systematic enforcement, community standards are regularly made clear and results are positive, as about 75 percent of violations are resolved after the first notice. Our goal is to educate residents.

The proactive enforcement results in increased public awareness. Therefore, Fridley residents who receive a violation notice needn’t jump to the conclusion that a finicky neighbor is causing their property to be targeted. This helps prevent animosity among neighbors.

We have also seen that consistent systematic enforcement is more defensible in court. Highly organized record-keeping throughout the enforcement process is crucial. Employees are aided by our custom-designed complaint tracking system, a computer database for keeping tabs on violation cases. An iPad loaded with city maps and markers for each property helps ensure the thoroughness of initial systematic inspections.

Support of leaders and residents
City Councilmember Bob Barnette is a proponent of systematic code enforcement. “It’s part of being a responsible city, and it is extremely important that we continue,” he says, adding that the bulk of residents agree. “Most of the feedback I hear is very, very positive.”

Bolstered by technology, teamwork, and a shared staff philosophy, systematic code enforcement has proven to be an effective option for Fridley and its residents.

Read the January-February 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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