Officials disallow unnamed complaints

HANCOCK COUNTY — County officials will no longer investigate anonymous complaint calls about eyesore properties in hopes of avoiding landing in the middle of neighbor disputes.

Members of the Hancock County Area Plan Commission this week decided if complaints are significant enough to warrant inspection, neighbors should be willing to leave their name and contact information with the department.

The decision is one of several the board has made in recent months to amend the county’s home inspection procedures to prevent county employees from entering properties with “No Trespassing” signs posted — which they argued could be unsafe as well as unfair to property owners who aren’t home.

Inspectors are called when homeowners are suspected to be in violation of local regulations; for example, if a homeowner has unregistered vehicles parked on their property, piles of debris or anything that could be considered an eyesore or threat to public safety.

During discussion about procedures at a recent meeting, several members of the plan commission said complaints often sprout from disputes between neighbors and that alleged violations often aren’t significant enough to require intervention by the planning department.

“I feel like if a person has a complaint that is significant, they should be willing to take ownership of it, not just anonymously report it,” said Tom Stevens, a member of the plan commission and county commissioner.

Last year, the department received roughly 100 complaints — most relating to garbage and unlicensed cars — that required an inspector to drive out to a property to verify a violation before issuing a warning, said Mike Dale, director of the Hancock County Planning Department.

About half of those complaints, which are typically called into the department office, were left anonymously.

Dale said he recognizes there could be instances in which neighbors don’t want to leave names because they’re concerned the property owner in violation might lash out against them. Those neighbors may contact their township trustee anonymously, and the trustee will verify the problem before issuing a complaint on the neighbor’s behalf.

The decision to do away with anonymous complaint calls came with an additional revision to enforcement procedures for inspectors, who are no longer allowed to proceed onto private property to investigate violations without homeowners’ permission.

When inspectors arrive at a property to investigate a complaint but cannot see the alleged violation from the roadway, inspectors knock on the house’s front door to ask homeowners for permission to proceed onto the property.

In the case that no one answered the door, inspectors previously would proceed onto the property to inspect for a violation anyway.

But several members of the plan commission voiced opposition to the practice, saying it could put inspectors in danger.

Going forward, inspectors who can’t reach a homeowner will instead rely on neighbors; if inspectors receive permission to walk onto an adjoining property, they might be able to spot a violation from there, Dale said.

Tom Nigh, president of the plan commission, said protecting county employees from unforeseen dangers, such as an aggressive dog running loose in the backyard, is the ultimate goal of the change.

“You just never know when you’re going onto someone’s personal property,” Nigh said.

Complaints can be made by calling the planning and building department at 317-477-1134.

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.