Getting Sisters into code compliance


Last updated 1/23/2024 at 9:26am

Photo by Bill Bartlett

Most code compliance issues involve nuisances like overgrown vegetation. The City of Sisters seeks voluntary compliance before enforcement action is taken.

In April of 2022, the City of Sisters hired its first ever code compliance officer whose job is fairly straight forward - obtain compliance of the municipal and development codes. This includes complaints of properties with overgrown vegetation or having an accumulation of debris, garbage, and junk.

Other areas of concentration include compliance with Dark Skies standards, noise, dust, dangerous trees, weeds and signage. Complaints of animal nuisances, noise, illegal parking, abandoned vehicles or city park violations are handled by the Sheriff's Office. The work of the code compliance officer is not well known to many citizens and some are unaware that there is such a position.

In the 12 months between November 2022 and October 2023 there were 271 compliance cases started, about one per work day. Some 205 were found to be in violation. Some 63 were not, and three are still pending.

In all, three civil penalties were levied. One for $500 was paid. One for $2,000 is outstanding, and the third is being determined by an administrative hearing officer.

Categorically, code violations are divided into four segments: design standards, business licenses, nuisances and land use. The most common violations (72 percent) are nuisances - overgrown vegetation, accumulation of debris, trees hanging too low over streets and sidewalks, junked vehicles, hazardous trees, abandoned motor vehicles on private property.

Some 12 percent were violations of design standards - permanent and temporary signs, fencing, existing trees on lots being developed.

These numbers come from a report requested of the city by The Nugget.

The city did not make Jacob Smith, the code compliance officer, available for an interview. The Nugget met instead City Manager Jordan Wheeler, and Community Development Manager Scott Woodford to whom the code compliance officer reports.

Woodford told The Nugget, "Staff looks to city council for direction on the appropriate level of code enforcement in the community, as enforcement can range widely from very proactive (where the code enforcement officer is out all the time looking for and initiating any observable code violation) to strictly reactive (responding solely to complaints received from the citizens) to somewhere in between the two.

"The city employs the 'somewhere in between' approach where certain code violations (including hazardous and overgrown vegetation, noxious weeds, sign permits, and extreme life, fire, and safety violations) are proactively addressed, and most others generally rely on complaint-based initiation."

Asked about future strategies for a higher level of enforcement, Woodford replied, "The challenge in code enforcement lies in striking a balance between granting private property owners adequate time to address their property's condition and meeting the public's expectation of a nuisance-free environment.

"While some citizens could perceive the local code enforcement program as too lenient in certain situations, discretion is exercised in deciding when to initiate a violation and how to implement enforcement mechanisms, such as civil penalties, abatements, and the application of liens.

"These enforcement mechanisms adhere to strict timelines for payments, appeals, hearings, and additional or heightened enforcement, which can take time. To an external observer, it may seem that the city is inactive in rectifying violations; however, there is a lot going on behind the scenes and the enforcement process is running its course."

The Nugget asked mayor Michael Preedin if he thought the $117,000 spent on code compliance was a good investment.

"We should always be looking at our return on investment and evaluating effectiveness," Preedin replied.

As for the direction council placed on code enforcement, Preedin told The Nugget that the fourth quarter report showed cases divided roughly 50/50 between citizen-initiated and staff-initiated, which indicated to him a happy medium where complaints aren't all neighbors complaining about neighbors or the city being heavy-handed in seeking out violations.

Code compliance is a salient issue in light of the new Dark Skies amendment to the code.

According to the city, a period of public education will precede any enforcement. That will include all the tools available to the city – its newsletter, website, social media and information forums.

"We are going to rely heavily on the (Sisters High School) Astronomy Club to lead the education phase," Wheeler said.

Wheeler also acknowledged that many of the new immigrants to Sisters are affluent and/or from communities where code compliance was more established and codified. "Expectations are high in Sisters," he said. "Ultimately it is council who will provide the guidance on how heavy a touch staff puts on compliance, and that has and will continue to change as Sisters grows."


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