WILMINGTON — If you see Wilmington Mayor John Stanforth or his executive assistant Marian Miller taking pictures of your house or putting a stake in your yard, you might want to do some spring cleaning.
They began enforcing city code regulations several weeks ago after hearing citizens complain at a judiciary committee meeting about the lack of property code enforcement.
Code differs from zoning in that it largely deals with an owner’s responsibility to the property, whereas zoning determines what can be built in a zone.
The city does employ a board of zoning appeals to handle zoning codes, but hasn’t had a code enforcement officer for several years.
“I just started looking around and realized that things have been ignored for a long time,” Stanforth said. “I just didn’t want it to continue. And I realized we still don’t have any money to hire a code official, so I’ll do it myself.”
Stanforth said that often code issues are caused by ignorance rather than malice or neglect.
“It’s about being a good neighbor,” Miller said. “When I do it, I’m angry. I would say some of it is ignorance, but a lot of it is just being inconsiderate to your neighbor. And, I’m offended for the neighbors that have to live with a neighbor that has so many code violations.”
Stanforth and Miller said it’s often the city’s poorer residents that suffer, as a community, from code violations.
Violations “seem to be in the lower economic parts of our town, and it’s not fair to the people that live in those neighborhoods that they have those dilapidated problems across the street from them,” Stanforth said.
It also occurs in clusters, Stanforth and Miller said, driving down property values for an entire neighborhood.
“It’s a ripple effect,” said Miller. “When one neighbor gets away with it, then it’s almost like a chain reaction a lot of times.”
Similarly, Miller said, improving a neighborhood can have a ripple effect.
“When you’re moving into the neighborhood you almost rise to the expectation,” Miller said. “I weed my yard way more now than I did before.”
Some of the properties are dilapidated enough, or broken into, that they can become targets for illegal or unwanted activity, and the blight drives down nearby property values.
In extreme situations involving abandoned properties that need torn down, Stanforth said the city has the ability to tear them down, but may not be able to recoup its money even if the lot sells after the demolition.
There has not yet been a demolition while Stanforth has been in office.
Miller said she and Stanforth were considering trying to change the way the fees work so they’re payable immediately, like traffic tickets, instead of assessed to a real estate’s taxes.
At the end of the day, though, Stanforth says it’s about the homes, not the money.
“I don’t want to fine anybody,” Stanforth said. “I just want you to clean up your yard.”
“We don’t want to mow the grass,” Miller said. “We don’t want to fine you $100. We want you to mow the grass.”
Putting stakes in yards with tall grass and telling residents to “clean up your yard” is just the beginning.
For one, Miller said, the city could apply for a grant to demolish blighted property, possibly with the help of a Clinton County land bank.
Stanforth said he was considering creating “a shaming list,” which would contain the names of property holders that are in violation of code, and Miller suggested a community cleanup type of event where a city dumpster is provided to a neighborhood, similar to the county’s tire amnesty events.
“Some people can’t rent the dumpster,” Miller said. “We need to decide how much we want these communities cleaned up.”
Miller said the city could consider donating a dumpster, creating a kind of “trash amnesty day.”
Reach Nathan Kraatz at 937-382-2574, ext. 2510 or on Twitter @NathanKraatz.