HANCOCK COUNTY — A judge might have to intervene when messy properties violate local ordinances, because of a change in procedure that limits county officials from investigating neighborhood eyesores.
A push that began in October by local officials to prevent county personnel from entering properties with “No Trespassing” signs posted has stopped Hancock County planning director Mike Dale from investigating complaints about several problem properties in the area. As a result, Dale could have to seek a judge’s help in order to do his job.
Under the new, stricter rules, Dale can’t complete an inspection of a home in the 3300 block of West County Road 200S, a property that has been cited twice for having numerous unregistered vehicles parked in the driveway, because a sign is posted. The property owner has been uncooperative with the planning department and hasn’t paid fines or removed the vehicles, Dale said.
In response, the Hancock County Board of Zoning Appeals requested a search warrant, which must be signed by a judge, so Dale can complete the inspection of the property and demand action from the homeowner — an unprecedented move by the department, Dale said.
In the past, the department hasn’t had to resort to pursuing a search warrant — a time-consuming process that tacks on several hundred dollars in legal fees — because department procedures allowed Dale to inspect a property regardless of whether a sign was posted, said Gregg Morelock, attorney for the Board of Zoning Appeals.
In October, the Hancock County Board of Commissioners asked members of the county plan commission to review procedures for property inspections after residents raised concerns about county officials coming to their homes, unannounced.
After receiving complaints from residents who were unhappy to learn that inspections were carried out on their property without their knowledge, Commissioner Marc Huber expressed concerns that the language used in the county code enforcement ordinance left too much room for interpretation.
The other commissioners said they agreed, asking the plan commission to consider barring Dale from going onto private property without permission. The plan commission hasn’t made a final decision about a permanent change in policy; meanwhile, Dale has been steering clear of properties with no trespassing signs.
To complete an inspection through a search warrant, Morelock prepares a file for a judge on the county’s behalf. That file contains photos of the violation and a written explanation demonstrating how the department has exhausted all other options, he said.
If the judge signs the warrant, a sheriff’s deputy must deliver it to homeowner; then Dale can complete the inspection.
Morelock estimates each search warrant request will take two to three hours to prepare, which equates to $350 to $525 in legal fees for the county, he said.
Until Dale receives further guidance from the plan commission, he will continue to request search warrants as needed.
The plan commission is expected to discuss the procedures at its next meeting, Feb. 23.