OUR POSITION: “Reactive” or “proactive”: The concept can be fluid in zoning code enforcement.
A few observations about property codes:
• Florida counties and cities have them.
• While written on paper, codes are not set in stone tablets. They are often flexible, dependent on a vague idea of “community standards.”
• Enforcement ebbs and flows, based on factors like department staffing, the economy, community demands or explicit government policy. Or even the attitudes and skills with the code enforcement badge.
• Not everyone likes them. Your opinion may depend on your perspective, personal tastes or disposition. Or whether you are a complainant or the object of a complaint.
• Love them or hate them, they are a fact of life in Southwest Florida.
Recent stories by Sun staff writer Betsy Calvert highlighted the nuances in the world of county/city code enforcement. As the stories pointed out, residential and business zoning code enforcement varies slightly from place to place.
Charlotte and Sarasota counties take a “reactive” approach, which means code enforcement officers, for the most part, react to citizen complaints about a violation at someone else’s property.
For the most part.
In recent years, controversy bubbled up in the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area when a new-to-town code officer began reacting more vigorously to complaints. One complaint led to a counter complaint. Neighbors began turning on one another. It touched off a major hoo-haa that finally simmered down after months of community meetings and rules revisions.
In the Parkside CRA in Charlotte County in recent years, county officials also opted to step up enforcement of zoning codes in the business district many thought looked tacky. Residential enforcement also is more vigorous and officer-driven.
That’s a related point: What’s acceptable in one area may not be acceptable in another. Enforcement involves the notion of “community standards,” or “sub-community standards.” My section of town may appear to be OK with something like an unlicensed truck in the backyard; yours not.
Or, as Charlotte County Code Manager Shawn Horton put it, “A lot of what we deal with is based on community tolerance.”
Tolerance depends on … well, it may be code officials’ feel for an area. Or the frequency of complaints. Or public policy driven by a desire to upgrade the general appearance, as in Parkside.
The city of North Port has been up and down and slightly up again during the past 15 years.
During the mid-2000s, aggressive code enforcement earned the city a reputation of being one, harsh deed-restricted community. Property owners racked up thousands of dollars of fines for picayune violations. It was scandalous and, eventually, the city both scaled back and forgave the most-egregious bills.
During the recession, city and county governments relaxed enforcement. When the economy came back, enforcement picked up again.
And in North Port, city officials decided code enforcement would tilt toward more “proactive” enforcement. That means code officers were got the go-ahead to find violations, not just react to complaints.
Bottom line: No one wants to live in a trashy neighborhood, and some people need an enforcement hammer to meet standards. Blight is an infection that can grow and devalue neighborhoods.
For the most part, though, as Horton noted, a simple notice and friendly persuasion most often gets the job done. But cities and counties often struggle to find the right balance; one size doesn’t fit all places or situations.