OTTUMWA — All it takes is one house to contribute to a neighborhood's breakdown.
This week, the Ottumwa City Council discussed changes to the city's nuisance ordinance, which has not seen significant changes since 1961.
Those changes include citizens keeping too many items outside their homes (often covered in tarps), installation of electric fences along public sidewalks, parking in front yards, using toilets or bathtubs as "decorative" planters in front yards, continuous garage or yard sales and parking commercial trucks in driveways overnight or leaving refrigerated trucks or engines running overnight.
"What we see a lot of is people have more stuff than they have space to store it in," said Jody Gates, director of health, inspections and solid waste, which results in some placing tarps over and around the extra "stuff" in their yards in order to conceal it from inspectors.
Last year, the health department received more than 1,200 nuisance complaints. More than 200 complaints were filed about junk cars.
Councilman Brian Morgan worried that it's easy to make an ordinance but difficult to enforce it.
Nuisances result in civil citations, which are $250 for the first, $500 for the second and $750 for the third and subsequent violations.
"There's really nothing more we can do except in situations where a nuisance needs to be abated or cleaned up," Gates said. "At that point, we initiate a cleanup where we send people to the property and collect all the things that are a problem and dispose of them. Then we send a bill to the property owner, and if it doesn't get paid, it's assessed to their property taxes."
Gates said she wants people who call into the health department to begin filing formal complaints.
"It's going to take a complaint because the health department doesn't have staff out on a 24/7 shift, so we wouldn't notice," she said. "And the police department isn't going to be in your neighborhood except when you call them.
"This is primarily how we handle the majority of our complaints now. It's not that staff are driving by and noticing something. Most are resident-generated complaints to the department. Then if we get in the neighborhood and see a lot of other problems, then staff will take down addresses."
Nuisances have changed over the years, she said.
"I don't remember having the issue of refrigerated trucks parked in front of houses running all night," Gates said. "And I don't remember there being a lot of electric fences being used in town. I don't remember the tarp stuff, either. It's almost like hoarding. They've got so much stuff that it pushes its way out of the house onto the front porch or in the yard. I've never seen anything quite as amazing as that, where it's just piled up, and that's how people handle it."
The council wasn't opposed to the ordinance change, but they did ask for clarification on a number of items, including allowing parking in yards for special events, flexibility on allowing bathtubs as planters in front yards and setting limitations on banning the use of electric fences. Morgan had concerns that the ordinance could intrude on a person's right to use their private property as they please.
"They want to balance individual needs and rights with the codes we're going to be adopting," Gates said. "I understand that, but I also know what our people see out there in the field."
Through tweaking the ordinance, Gates hopes to clarify exactly what is and is not prohibited.
"I was hoping we would get real specific and detailed for residents' sake as well as our inspector, so people can see in black and white — that's prohibited, you're not supposed to do that. And if it's not in that list, then it's likely not prohibited," Gates said.