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Building code violators may see sharp rise in fines

Code enforcement officer seeks authority to ticket municipal violators with higher penalties

By Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer | Apr 8, 2021

Property owners who continually violate city ordinance or refuse to upgrade their properties could face steeper fines than before. At Monday evening’s Estherville city council meeting, code enforcement officer Greg Van Langen said fining a violator $100 under the current ordinance is rarely sufficient to compel them to complete an expensive task like painting their building, clearing debris from outside, or demolishing a structure.

Van Langen said, “If I have a dangerous building, I send a letter to say they have a building violation under city code and the building must be renovated or removed, and I include a date by which they must take care of the problem.”

Van Langen said he discussed the issue with the Magistrate, who agreed $100 is not enough of a penalty to be a deterrent, and Van Langen wanted the authority to ticket a violator up to the legal maximum of $750 for a violation.

“[The magistrate] is comfortable with that. If the issue is painting a building it might be $300. If it’s removing a building, it’s $750, and if it goes to court and the magistrate doesn’t think the assessment is fair, it’s not set in stone and he can change it,” Van Langen said.

City attorney Jennifer Bennett Finn said, “By the time Greg [Van Langen] sends the notice out, the person makes an appearance and the court date is set, there might be a continuance. Even the process for the first violation might take a couple of months.”

Bennett Finn recommended the city council approve the ordinance change and allow Van Langen the latitude to do what he needs to do in nuisance property enforcement.

City administrator Penny Clayton said, “[Van Langen] has shown discretion and reasonable judgment, both as a police officer and in his newer role in code enforcement. I believe he should be granted latitude and given the tools he needs to do his job effectively.”

Violations that fall under municipal infractions include minimum housing code, dangerous buildings and nuisances. Currently, each day a municipal infraction occurs or is permitted to exist constitutes a separate offense, and the city may still go to court to seek an injunction or an abatement process even as it assesses fines for the infractions.

In other business, the Estherville city council approved the submission of a Community Catalyst Grant application and a development agreement with Mike Hamilton for the building located at 506 Central Ave. The city applied to the Iowa Economic Development Authority to be a pass-through organization for Hamilton’s planned renovation of the downtown Estherville building, the same process by which the city and state are assisting J&S Custom with the renovation of the old firehouse, and a similar grant through which the 700 building was renovated. Estherville and Emmet County economic development director Lyle Hevern said he had discussed the availability of office space in Estherville with a few interested companies, and that office space is in demand, or will be when the pandemic restrictions are further lifted.

The council also approved an agreement for the RISE Grant the city recently received from the Iowa DOT for funding not to exceed $387,663 for the new industrial park.

In other business, the council accepted the low bid from ABC Services of Estherville in the amount of $74,901 for a project at the site of the new swimming pool.

The work will be completed by June 1. The council also approved an agreement to use $10,000 in FEMA funds to purchase the property at 201 West 1st Street North. The city will demolish the home and turn the property into park space.

The next meeting of the Estherville city council will be Monday, April 19 at 5 p.m., in the council chambers of city hall.