September 21, 2014
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When neighbor's property isn't up to snuff

“Frequent flyers,” is the name Annamarie Marchetti bestows on a small group of residents whose names resurface time and again for infractions of the “property maintenance code,” previously known as “minimum housing.”

The habitual offenders, Marchetti believes, don’t do what they do deliberately, said the clerk of property maintenance. She thinks they really don’t understand why their neighbors should be upset with the piles of junk and unregistered cars in their yard. After all, it’s their stuff – andtheir yard.

Debris and unregistered vehicles are two of the three most frequent infractions, says Ted Sarno, director and building official. The third most common relates to “protective coating” which could be peeling paint or siding coming off a house. In the summer, the fourth and fifth sources of complaint are overgrown lawns and standing water that is a source for mosquitoes. With so many foreclosures, Sarno said complaints over uncut lawns have been on the rise.

Moreover, neighborhood appearance emerged as a key concern in the city’s Comprehensive Plan. In drafting the plan, which is expected to be finalized this summer, the city held a series of community meetings and more than 500 people completed a survey.

City Planner William DePasquale notes that concern over neighborhood appearance goes “hand-in-hand with the love for individual communities.” He said the message was clear that residents feel the city needs to do a better job of enforcing the code.

It is the “frequent flyers,” however, that not only take up a disproportionate amount of the department’s time, and make for Letters to the Editor,” like the one the Warwick Beacon got from a Conimicut resident.

The writer says he’s lived near 28 Eaton Ave. for about five years and his first call to the city was to bring attention to an unregistered truck outside the house there. He was soon calling with more complaints.

“I have been to minimum housing at least 50 times. I have called the councilman several times. I have written and hand-delivered a letter to the mayor’s office. I have been to the police station with the license plate numbers of unregistered vehicles parked on the street.”

The frustrated writer goes on to say he can’t rent a part of his home because people don’t want to live that close to a junkyard. “Any assistance you may offer would be greatly appreciated,” he writes.

The city knows the Eaton address well. On two occasions, most recently in 2010, property owner Pamela Petrus was brought into municipal court and is slated to go back to court within three weeks.

The Eaton Avenue situation has parallels in other neighborhoods, even high-rent areas like Cowesett.

“We’ve had them all over,” says Sarno. Some conditions have been so bad, and the property owners so obstinate, that they have ended up in jail, although that hasn’t happened in about eight years.

But that’s not the direction Sarno or Municipal Court Justice Joel Gerstenblatt want to go.

Foremost, the effort is to try to get people to comply. After a complaint has been filed – the department does not go out looking for violations – the property owner is notified and given a period within which to comply. That can be anywhere up to 30 days after which an inspection is conducted. In the event the problem hasn’t been corrected, a second notice is issued. During this period, the property owner can seek administrative reconsideration or ask to be heard by the board of review. Throughout the process, the department is looking for corrective measures.

Assuming none of that works, the department may go for a third notice or, more likely, into court. This could happen almost a year after the initial complaint.

“By the time it comes to me it’s a good number of months down the road,” says Gerstenblatt.

Gerstenblatt has been on the bench for 18 years. Like Sarno, his objective is to have the property owner comply. If there’s no effort, or a minimal effort to correct the problem, the case can move on to a trial, fines and even time behind bars.

The threats are often enough.

Yet, there are the repeat offenders. Gerstenblatt believes some are facing other personal problems, such as hoarding. “Incarcerating them is not really the answer,” he said.

Sarno suggests that swifter action – issuing a violation like a traffic ticket that would send the property owner to court immediately – might speed up the process and reduce the time spent trying to get offenders to change their habits.

With two inspectors on the road, Sarno estimates the department conducts 100 inspections a week. As a number of these are follow up inspections, the number of individual complaints is about 2,000 a year but Sarno puts the frequent flyers at less than one percent.

Apart from the yard upkeep on foreclosed properties, Sarno said he hasn’t seen an appreciable impact because of the recession. He and Gerstenblatt have worked with homeowners who say they can’t afford the painting or work needed for their property. In such cases, where the intent is there but the means lacking, additional time can resolve the issue.

“We’re working with people, we’re hearing the hardships,” said Marchetti.

Speaking of a recent complaint about an unregistered car, Sarno said the owner had all intention of getting the vehicle back on the road.

“You give the guy a break. He’s out of work,” said Sarno. He was given 60 days to register the vehicle.

A frustration often voiced by targets of inspection is that their property is no worse than those of neighbors, yet the city isn’t chasing them. Sarno has heard it and he’s heard the demands to reveal the source of the complaint.

There have been some unusual calls, including one when James Marcello headed the department. Lincoln Chafee was mayor. Marcello had the job of calling Chafee about a delivery of firewood that had been dumped in the mayor’s yard several weeks earlier.

The department only acts on a complaint and does not ask the identity of the complainant. Sarno thinks most offenders know who made the call, and he said there are a few cases of what he calls the “Hatfields and the McCoys,” where neighbors make a habit of trading complaints over each other’s properties.


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