The Ottumwa Courier

June 11, 2013

Nuisance ordinance changes: nit-picky or too lax?

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Changes to the nuisance ordinance are long overdue, but there needs to be some “gray area” where inspectors use discretion when issuing citations, say city officials.

One suggested change to the nuisance ordinance is prohibiting people from parking in the grassy areas of their front yards, said Health, Inspections and Solid Waste Director Jody Gates at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

“I’m still not totally sold on this parking thing,” said Councilman Brian Morgan. “I understand the reasoning behind it; I really do. But how do we enforce this? There are even things in this nuisance ordinance that haven’t changed since 1961 and we have those problems all over town now, so we’re not able to enforce those now.”

Gates said she doesn’t have additional enforcement tactics to supplement her proposed ordinance changes besides responding to complaints and notifying property owners of ordinance changes with door hangers.

“... the only way to go after some more of this stuff in the code is to add more staff to you,” said Councilman Mitch Niner to Gates. “If we can’t afford to add more staff to you to really go out and tackle some of these, the least we could do is adjust words you’re running into problems with to help you do a better job.”

Gates said education is just as important.

“These changes may not seem very quick, but they’re more long-lasting ... once it becomes not the norm to park in your front yard,” she said. “Maybe it causes people to think we’re lax, but most of the time we let people know what the problem is and give them time to fix it, not just show up and write them a ticket. We’re trying to raise the livability of neighborhoods.”

The prohibition on “bathroom planters” will remain in the code, she said, though Morgan asked that inspectors and officers use discretion when issuing tickets, just as police officers do with speeding tickets.

“When it comes to bathtub planters in the yards, as far as the code it’s the same,” Niner said of whether a bathtub planter is beautifully landscaped or becomes a mosquito pit. “But as far as discretion, it’s two different things.”

Discretion, said City Attorney Joni Keith, comes into play when she sees citations in court.

“Every citation that’s written, every traffic charge that’s written, goes before me and the magistrate,” Keith said. “If I feel that the person didn’t get much notice and I believe them, a lot of times I’ll dismiss it. Or if I think the charge was a little borderline, I’m not going to prosecute it because I think we need to have common sense. I don’t want to take issues before a magistrate that may make us look a little nit-picky.”

While Gates had written changes to limit the number of yard sales a home can have per year to two, some councilmen expressed concerns that the limit would be hard to enforce.

“People thought limiting them to two yard sales was too limiting because they use them for a variety of reasons,” she said.

The problem isn’t a person having three or four garage sales a year, Morgan said.

“What we’re trying to stop is someone that continually operates something out of their garage that the state says it needs to get sales tax out of it because they’re operating a business, in essence,” Morgan said.

But, he said, it doesn’t matter what limit the city places on yard sales.

“Unless someone turns someone in, we’re not going to be able to enforce it,” he said.

Proposed changes to the ordinance also include new requirements for electric fences. While Gates had originally suggested a 50-foot separation between an electric fence and a public right-of-way or adjacent property, public comments caused her to change her mind.

“Perhaps 50 feet is too vast,” she said. “It needs to be minimal so people, if they need to use an electric fence, they can, but still protect the public right-of-way and adjacent properties.”

Instead of 50 feet, Gates suggested a 4-foot separation in line with building code setbacks.

“We don’t get a lot of these complaints every year, that’s for sure, but even if we get one or two, I think that’s too many for an electric fence,” she said.

A revised draft of the nuisance ordinance will be brought before the council at a later date for approval. Proposed changes can be viewed at

— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.

In the document below, sections highlighted in yellow are those changes to the nuisance ordinance proposed by city council; sections highlighted in green are changes proposed by the public.