HANCOCK COUNTY — A junk car, piles of trash and debris in someone’s yard are among property violations that prompt neighbor complaints, but proposed changes to a county ordinance could hinder inspectors’ ability to step in to help.
If local officials approve proposed changes to the county’s code enforcement rules — an effort to address property owners’ privacy concerns — county employees could have less authority to investigate problem properties.
At the Hancock County Area Plan Commission meeting in November, board members gave Mike Dale, executive director of the county’s planning and building departments, the go-ahead to draft revisions of the county’s code enforcement ordinance, which outlines procedures for investigating property violations, like illegal storage or dumping.
Inspectors check on those issues in hopes of addressing them before they create eyesores in the community. But after several property owners complained about inspections happening while they weren’t at home, county officials began to wonder if their policies for coming onto private land were too lax.
As it stands now, to access property owners’ land, inspectors knock on the door to ask for permission to proceed with an inspection. If no one comes to the door, local rules allow county employees to proceed onto the property.
Under proposed revisions, inspectors could lose the authority to set foot on someone’s land without a court order.
With restricted access to properties, Dale said, it would be harder to spot and address code violations. That could mean infractions go unresolved, leaving neighbors to cope with eyesores or other inconveniences from homes and yards in disarray.
While he said he’s still weighing what specific changes he’ll suggest for approval by the plan commission, Dale said the revisions could compromise the county’s authority to investigate property owners whose land falls short of code requirements.
If his office receives several complaints about a property, he could seek a warrant for an investigation from a judge, Dale said. But first, he would have to receive approval from the Hancock County Area Board of Zoning Appeals, which meets monthly and usually reserves such measures for only the most severe cases.
While that could drag out the process of enforcing county code, Dale said, it would preserve property owners’ sense of privacy.
“It would take more time, of course, but we still want to consider the expectations of the general public,” he said.
Marc Huber, a member of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, initiated the conversation about the county’s code enforcement rules after receiving complaints from property owners over the last several months. The residents were unhappy to learn that inspections were carried out on their property without their knowledge, he said.
Huber said the language used in the code enforcement ordinance isn’t specific enough and left too much room for interpretation.
Tom Stevens, a county commissioner who also sits on the plan commission, said it will be difficult to achieve a balance between enforcing code while still respecting residents’ property rights.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Stevens said. “But I do not want to put the county in a position where we cannot enforce our ordinance.”
Stevens said he’s reserving judgment until Dale presents official recommendations at the plan commission’s next meeting.
Bill Bolander, a member of the plan commission, said the restrictions could protect county personnel from unforeseen hazards on a property.
During an inspection this fall, Dale was bitten by a homeowner’s dog. While the bite was not severe, it raised questions about liability.
County employees’ well-being needs to be considered first and foremost, Bolander said.
A shift in tactics — versus rewriting the code — might solve the problem, he said.
County inspectors could request a neighbor’s permission to walk on their land in order to view properties next door, Bolander suggested.
“If there’s really an issue there, they can’t hide it entirely,” he said. “They might just need a different approach.”