Property rights versus property maintenance debated in Woodstock
A public hearing last week on proposed changes to Woodstock’s property maintenance ordinance generated some heated debate over property rights and property protection.
The ordinance, in place since 2008, sets minimum standards for maintenance in order to protect public health and safety and to prevent nuisance conditions, according to its stated purpose.
About 30 people turned out for the Feb. 26 hearing, which also addressed a proposed new wind ordinance and changes to the current fireworks ordinance. All the ordinance proposals will be voted upon at the March 25 annual town meeting.
Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman has asked that several clarifications be added to the property maintenance ordinance in order to provide a more solid basis for her enforcement work.
The changes spell out procedures for her to enter a property “when legally authorized to do so upon information indicating the likelihood of a violation.”
The proposed amendments also outline specifics for taking legal action if violations continue after a set period of time.
Another proposed section states that “abandoned buildings (sheds, barns, shacks, garages) that are collapsing and dilapidated with broken/missing windows, holes in the roof and/or exterior walls, or having excessive vermin living in the structure or building will be required to be made safe or demolished.”
A fourth change adds examples of accumulated items that could create a violation, including tires, household debris, scrap metals, wood and discarded lumber or plastic.
Corey-Whitman described her general approach for dealing with such problems. She said if she receives a complaint or finds a violation, she first seeks voluntary compliance.
“I’d rather work with people,” she said. “Sometimes they just need help. If we can do that, we’ll do it.”
She said she preferred to assist with cleanup “prior to it becoming a junkyard.”
Corey-Whitman also said there are already state statutes that give her some authority in such situations.
She was asked whether an outbuilding would be considered abandoned even if someone was living on the property, She said it would not.
Joy Sumner, who owns a camp on North Pond but is not a resident, was not satisfied with Corey-Whitman’s reasoning and objected to the overall philosophy of the ordinance.
“Why is it your right to tell us what we can do with our property that we pay taxes on?” she asked. “Just because the neighbor next door or the guy going by doesn’t like the way something looks, it’s none of their business. If something happens to somebody, the town isn’t going to get sued, I’m the one that’s going to get sued. I think [the ordinance] should be shredded.”
She added that if a fast food restaurant or a subdivision went in next to her property, “I might not like it, but it’s not my business.”
But Nancy Willard said her property values would be affected by a nearby rundown property.
“If I happen to be her neighbor, then my value of my property is diminished by the fact that your property looks like hell,” she said.
Corey-Whitman told Sumner, “It may be your property, but if it gets to the point where it’s dangerous, it does become a town issue. If I get complaints and I don’t do my due diligence, and if somebody gets hurt, we’re liable.”
Sumner’s husband, Floyd, offered his views on the larger implications of the ordinance.
“I see how communism works,” he said. “This is exactly what is happening to our country today.”
He then read a statement that he attributed to the late Soviet dictator, Nikita Kruschev.
Retorted Willard, “Do we have to listen to this? I don’t agree with you at all. I didn’t come to hear this. I came to hear other things.”
“He has every right to say what he has to say,” said Hank Forman.
Concluded Floyd Sumner, “This NIMBY. When it’s in your backyard – your backyard stops where your property line ends.”
Marcel Polak said he was not taking a position on the ordinance, but gave an example of a house that had been occupied by juveniles where, he said, bags of garbage piled up at a nearby house. The bags contained feces, and there were also rats around, he said.
“When it gets to be that bad the town, I believe, has to have some tools to figure out how to fix it,” he said.
Corey-Whitman said that with or without an ordinance she could go on to a property in that situation, based on the state law. But, she said, the local ordinance gives her more opportunity to work with property owners on a problem. “This is not meant to stomp all over people’s rights. I’m not that kind of person,” she said.
One resident suggested that the phrase “to protect property values” be added to the stated purpose of the ordinance.
Floyd Sumner expressed frustration that he has no say in the fate of the ordinance.
“I don’t think it’s right that I can’t vote,” he said. “That’s my property.”
Town Manager Vern Maxfield said the couple would need to become residents to vote, which would mean meeting guidelines that could include paying federal income taxes from a town residence address, obtaining hunting/fishing licenses there, registering motor vehicles there, etc.
The latter part of the hour-and-a-half hearing dealt with a proposed new wind ordinance and changes to the existing fireworks ordinance.
Town Manager Vern Maxfield was asked the next day to summarize the discussion. He said there were many questions asked about the wind proposal but not much opposition.
There have been complaints from neighbors of the new Spruce Mountain Wind LLC 10-turbine project, most of them relating to noise. The new ordinance would require a longer setback distance (one mile) from nearby property lines than does current state law.
The fireworks ordinance amendment would restrict use of consumer fireworks to only a few days out of the year, around July 4th, Labor Day and New Year’s, and would match the restrictions in an ordinance approved recently in nearby Greenwood.
Maxfield said people at the hearing were skeptical of its value, because local law enforcement agencies would not enforce it.