HANCOCK COUNTY — County officials are working to revise an ordinance that gives inspectors the right to come onto private property for an inspection after a complaint is filed against a homeowner.
The aim of the code enforcement ordinance is to allow county employees to investigate conditions of a problem property, but locals have voiced complaints that the rules are too broad, allowing county officials unfairly onto their land.
Inspectors are called when homeowners are suspected to be in violation of local regulations; for example, if a homeowner has unregistered vehicles on the property, piles of debris or anything that could be considered an eyesore or threat to public safety.
After receiving several complaints from local residents, the Hancock County Board of Commissioners has asked members of the county plan commission to review procedures for property inspections.
Commissioner Marc Huber expressed concerns that the language used in the county code enforcement ordinance leaves too much room for interpretation. He said that over the last two months he’s received three separate complaints from residents in his district, which includes Buck Creek, Center and Jackson townships.
The current ordinance gives county inspectors the authority to inspect personal property after informing the resident of their presence and the purpose of the visit. If the resident refuses to allow the inspection, the county employee will leave and may petition a judge for a warrant.
But in a separate section of the ordinance, it specifies that if no one comes to the door when county officials show up, they are permitted to come onto the private property to proceed with the inspection.
Huber said the residents he’s received complaints from claim those sections contradict one another. He’s concerned the current language could leave the county liable for any incidents that occur while the inspector is there, which is why he’s asked the plan commission to consider a revision.
For example, Mike Dale, director of the zoning department, who also performs all property inspections, was recently bitten by a homeowner’s dog during an inspection. The bite was not severe but raised questions about liability.
“You just never know what you’ll stumble across if you’re wandering around a property that you’re unfamiliar with,” Huber said. “What if you step in a hole and break your ankle — who’s responsible if that happens?”
County Commissioner Tom Stevens said he’s never received a complaint from the residents of his district, though he agrees the language in the ordinance should be clarified.
“We need to be careful and make sure that we’re not violating any trespassing laws,” he said.
Stevens, who’s also a member of the Hancock County Area Plan Commission, said he’s weighing what changes need to be made, and he’ll seek input from the other six members of the plan commission at its next meeting, which hasn’t been scheduled but will take place in November.
Darla Smoak, Hancock County zoning assistant, said she and Dale will go over the ordinance in detail and make a recommendation to members of the plan commission.
She said one possible change could be to clarify the hours Dale is permitted to perform inspections.
The ordinance currently allows inspections to be made at “any reasonable hour,” and Smoak said it might help to limit that to the county office’s hours, which are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The plan commission will discuss revisions at its next meeting.