New code enforcement officer set to spruce up Liberty Hill

The City’s Code Enforcement Officer said he will speak with home owners on Barton Drive and other streets who he says are not maintaining their properties according to Liberty Hill health and safety codes. (Christine Bolanos Photo)

The City’s Code Enforcement Officer said he will speak with home owners on Barton Drive and other streets who he says are not maintaining their properties according to Liberty Hill health and safety codes. (Christine Bolanos Photo)

By Christine Bolaños

A pile of unused cars that have begun to rust as a result of continuous exposure to outside heat. Weeds as tall as adults that cover the lawn of a once quaint and lovely home. Unkept yards and garages that make homes appear abandoned.

These unpleasant scenarios can cause property values to go down, push potential home and business owners away and, even affect the health and safety of area residents.

The City of Liberty Hill recently hired a building inspector and certified code enforcement officer to help keep these cases to a minimum. City officials are striving to make property owners aware of any city ordinances they may be failing to follow, but, perhaps more important, offering their resources and support if needed.

“The vision is that we have a town in which citizens have a vested interest in being proud of the community they live in,” said City Administrator Greg Boatright. “And to want to be a good neighbor who wants to do anything you can to not have a negative impact on the person that lives next to you.”

Kevin Roberts joined the city’s payroll on Feb. 8, and in his dual role, is making it possible for the city to do the work in-house instead of contracting out services.

“We brought a lot of the things that we were outsourcing in house and this is one of the steps we took,” Boatright said. “Code enforcement was something we were negligent about simply because we didn’t really have the ability to enforce or monitor the code enforcement. It was kind of management by chaos or management by necessity.”

By having a full-time employee dedicated to building inspections and code enforcement, the city’s mindset can transition from reactive to proactive about any issues that may arise.

However, in order for code enforcement to be successful, property owners will also have to change their mindset, somewhat, if they haven’t done so already.

“A lot of property owners don’t want you to tell them what you can or can’t do on their property,” Boatright said.

Part of getting the city’s message across is for staff to deal with these property owners with tact.

“We’re going to take a very sensible approach to it and not go overboard as far as every time we see something we’re trying to write something up,” Boatright said. “It’s a learning experience because it’s the first time I’ve had someone with Kevin’s experience.”

Roberts has already spoken to a few residents about ordinance issues he has identified. He said, for the most part, the home owners are cooperative. Though, in many cases, the issue cannot be fixed overnight. It takes time, planning and many times, financial resources. That is where city staff and the municipal court comes in.

All staff who spoke with The Independent were adamant that fees assessed as a result of ordinance violations are rare and not the city’s goal. None of the staff could recall specific fees, because as they said, nine times out of 10, the property owner eventually works to fix the problem.

The city’s mission is to clean up the town, and, if need be, send its own staff out to do the project or provide the property owner proper guidance toward any needed services — whether it is someone to mow the lawn, trim tree branches or the like.

About three months before Roberts’ arrival, the City sent a letter to a home owner explaining her ordinance violations.

“The trees had fallen over the house,” Boatright said.

The lady, who lives in another town, told city staff she was aware there was a problem but could not do anything to address it herself.

“So we hired a contractor to clean it up and they were really happy and thankful they finally had a solution to the problem,” he said. “We want to be a solution to problems not a thorn on anybody’s side. We know property owners want to have a clean environment to live in and something they can look at and be proud of.

“A lot of time they may not have the resources to address the problem they may have,” Boatright added. “What we’re going to try to do is help them address the problem they may have and help them get that taken care of.”

Roberts, along with city staff, already worked to address an issue with a property owner who left couches outside for some time. The furniture remained outside despite harsh weather conditions including heavy rain. The issue was affecting the owner of Mike’s Barnyard BBQ on State Hwy. 29 who had concerns about rodents that had taken shelter in that furniture.

This was a case where the property owner was unwilling to fix the issue and the City took it upon itself to address the situation. Rodents can be a common problem in unkept areas, but, city staff has also run into snakes.

Still, Boatright reiterated, the City is flexible and works with property owners as best they can. A Class C misdemeanor and any associated fees are the absolute last resort. However, this is rarely the case, because city staff will handle the situations themselves.

“We want to be a resource. We don’t want people to look at it as something that is invading their privacy,” Boatright said. “You’re going to run across those people who don’t want that or feel like we’re imposing or being over the top on trying to enforce these ordinances. What it boils down to is how is it impacting the properties around and what is the appearance.”

Though code enforcement is part of his job, Roberts’ main responsibility is building inspections due to the high activity going on across town. Code enforcement, though, has been lenient in the past and inconsistently forced. Boatright suggested this time is different.

“I think what will make it successful is that we have a concerted effort,” Boatright said. “He has the support of the staff to help him. It’s not going to be just him going out there and trying to enforce something and not really having, at the end of the day, the ability to get final support.

“Council supports it. They voted to create this position in the budget,” he added. “They realized this was a problem in our city and that there were properties that needed to be cleaned up and properties that needed to be addressed; and, the only way to address it was through code enforcement.”

Another difference is that city staff will make it a point to communicate with property owners and keep that stream of communication going.

“It’s just a matter of educating the general public about what everyone wants to see and communicating with the community,” Roberts said. “Yes, we work for the community and we also want to work with them. The more I’m around the smoother all of this will go.”

Also different is that the associate judge in court is very familiar with code enforcement and its proper procedure.

“We can come to an end result and not just make empty threats,” Boatright said. “We have the ability to reach solutions.”

In the past, city staff has come across situations were property owners, because of their position in the community, or their connection to someone in power, was uncooperative.

“Kevin and I will confer if he’s got a big problem,” Boatright said. “I’m not going to get involved on a daily basis. We’ve got a process in place with Kevin and our municipal court. We’re not looking to fine people or charge fees or anything like that. We want to help them solve a problem that they have.

“We’re going to be very fair in the way that we address each situation,” he added. “It doesn’t matter who it is or what the situation is or how large or how small it is. With Kevin being the enforcement officer for our city he’s going to be here every day at the job monitoring. Monitoring what’s going on with the property owners and there’s going to be follow up.”

In the past, initial contact would be made with some follow up, but that communication would eventually drop as time went on without the situation always being resolved.

“We have a process set up to where a problem will be addressed until it’s resolved and we will continue to monitor and follow each step in the process,” Boatright said. “We’re going to be looking at it and we will continue until it’s resolved. We will stay on the case.”

But, he said, another aspect will be making sure property owners do not become “disenchanted” with the City’s service.

“Nine times out of 10 it’s someone that’s brought a problem to our attention,” Boatright explained. “We don’t want citizens to call about a problem and it goes unresolved. So we’re going to do everything we can to follow through.”

Roberts reiterated communication is key.

“Understanding their situation and being able to help them with it,” Roberts said. “Work with them to get things resolved.”

The first step in the process is the City either receives a complaint about an ordinance violation or Roberts identifies a problem while out working. Staff then makes initial contact to assess the situation.

“A lot of times it’s an absentee property owner,” Boatright said. “Who isn’t aware or doesn’t have resources.”

If verbal communication doesn’t work the next step is for the City to send the property owner an official notice of violation.

“And giving them ample time to address it,” Boatright said. “And monitoring to see what progress is being made.”

If that still doesn’t solve the problem then the next step is for the property owner to talk to a judge about the issue, figure out how it can be resolved and setting a time frame for the solution.

“Usually when a case is brought to us from code enforcement, if it’s not a law enforcement person issuing any kind of violation, summons or violation notice, I’ll summon them into court to come in,” said court administrator Tracy Musch. “Once they come into court they’ll have an opportunity to come and sit down and talk to our city prosecutor and discuss the situation of the case. There’s usually the option, more than likely, to help them take care of it.

“That’s the real point. It’s not necessary to fine these people,” Musch added. “It’s to get them in, open up a dialogue and start talking to them about fixing the problem. Usually the prosecutor will hear what they have to say and nine times out of 10 we end up re-setting the case. Giving a time frame to address the issues that may be going on.”

The court will give them 30 days, for example, to come in re-assess the case.

“It could go on for a couple of months while they address it,” Musch said.

In those one out of 10 cases, the property owner may be issued a fine. While code violations will typically qualify as a Class C misdemeanor, actions such as illegal dumping could result in a fine as high as $4,000.

Warrants could be issued or the City could send its own staff to address the situation. For the most part, the City will handle the situation, if it reaches this point.

“If they’re not willing to do that the City will take it upon itself to go in and clean it and make that situation right and then file a lien on the property,” Boatright said. “And at some point the City will get reimbursed. We’re not going to overlook or not enforce on every situation just because that person is unwilling to comply. I think the council is resolved to leave it in the hands of the staff, which is where it should be, and allow us to enforce ordinances and laws we have to address the situation.”

There are some situations where respecting owners’ privacy rights and the City’s larger interest in protecting residents is a balancing act.

“Anytime you have a property owner’s rights involved you have to be very cautious in the way you proceed,” Boatright said. “At the same time you can’t overlook something simply because of who the person is and the unpleasantness of dealing with the situation. We’re going to approach each one the same and give the property owner notice and give them ample time to comply.”

Boatright and Roberts agreed some of the more challenging issues to address are those involving unused vehicles, commonly referred to as junk cars.

“A lot of times people have an emotional attachment so I would say junk cars and equipment are the hardest to deal with,” Boatright said. “Next would be just general junk in old mobile homes, old metal collections and items people have accumulated on property from construction or whatever the case may be.”

In these cases property owners may claim they have plans to fix the vehicles, which makes the ordinance harder to enforce.

Boatright said the City has plans to follow up with a local property owner who has several unused vehicles on her property and claims she is planning to restore them.

“Owning that type of business and that being something associated with that business is a fine line to walk as to making the call,” Boatright said. “We’re looking into what we can and can’t do and making sure when we do notify them we’ve got a plan of action that we can see through to the end.”

Roberts said if a property owner does not comply with the ordinances cited in a mailed letter he has the option to issue a citation.

“Each situation is unique. Not every situation is cut and dry,” Boatright said. “Maybe it’s a property owner that doesn’t live there. Maybe they don’t have the resources or income to address the problem. We’re going to look at each situation and address it in the best way we can given the circumstances.”

Roberts is already out and about making contact with property owners, who in most cases, are receptive to his concerns and are working to address the problem.

Roberts earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Austin. Born and raised in Austin, Roberts owned his own building company for seven years in the Lago Vista area, before taking an offer to do commercial fishing in Alaska. He spent eight years there before buying a small ranch in Colorado.

He worked as a project manager for three years and then tried his hand at building inspection in Glenwood Springs. He broadened his ability for inspection services by earning certifications in plumbing, mechanical, soils and the like. Roberts did this for 12 years before deciding to move back to his home state.

He worked as building inspector and worked on home and remodels for six years before landing on his current opportunity.

Roberts has hit the ground running already developing relationships with property owners, waving to everyone in sight and driving around town in his pick-up truck.