THE DALLES — Wasco County planners are changing how the department deals with code compliance issues, shifting their emphasis from complaint-driven nuisance violations to violations of the county’s land use ordinances.

“We have some challenges in the code compliance program,” Kelly Howsley-Glover, interim planning director for Wasco County, told the board of commissioners Nov. 3.

Glover explained that currently, code enforcement is complaint driven and largely involve “nuisance” properties. One problem is the county receives a high level of anonymous complaints, which don’t typically lead to cases. Even when the complaint’s are not anonymous, which is required to pursue compliance, the cases are time consuming. “It can be pretty time-consuming to explore those nuisance complaints,” Howsley-Glover said. “They take on average about six years to resolve, if they ever get resolved,” Once resolved, they often reoccur.

As much as 90% of code compliance staff time is taken up by nuisance calls, she said. “They are complicated cases. They often revolve around people in some kind of situation of distress, whether it’s mental health issues, drug and alcohol issues, or just extreme poverty or old age and health issues. They can be tremendously challenging.”

Complicating enforcement, there is a statewide trend for such cases being challenged in court as potential violations to things like the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Even more troubling, there have been increased reports over the last several years regarding direct threats of violence against code compliance officers, some even having guns pulled on them as they were going about their job, Howsley-Glover noted.

Chris McNeal, a former Wasco County deputy who recently served as the county code compliance officer, said in some cases planners were visiting places they had no business going into. “We are just not the right agency to be going to some of these places. We have also had incidents of guns being pulled on compliance officers,” he said.

“Code compliance is pretty complicated,” McNeal added. “It’s personal. Everyone has a different perspective as to what is or isn’t ‘junk.’ A lot of the cases are problematic in resolution; maybe they have been collecting junk for 40 years, they have value to the owner. They intend to use it.”

Even when cleanup is undertaken, abatement takes resources and time those involved mostly have limited resources. “Getting that stuff out takes time, and it can take a lot of effort to do that.”

Yet nuisance violations are by no means the most important ones, noted Howsley-Glover, who recommended the county reduce the “nuisance” response of code compliance officers, first by not investigating anonymous complaints and encourage neighbor mediation.

Secondly, a 3 tier triage schedule was proposed, to prioritize land use violations:

Triage Schedule Proposal

Priority 1 violations

Priority 1 violations are land use activities that impact environmental/natural resources, pose significant health and safety issues, or inolve structures under construction that do not meet standards.

Violations includes floodplain violation/drainage/wetland/riparian area disturbances (illegal crossings, development, grading etc.); dwellings and structures without permits; violations of conditional approval permits and overgrown vegetation or violations of fire safety standards for defensible space.

Priority 2 violations

Priority 2 violations are land use of nuisance activities that pose health/safety issues or involve development that does not meet standards.

Violations include grading without permits; Commercial/industrial/recreation activities without permits (includes home occupations, agricultural buildings converted to nonagricultural uses) and outdoor parking or storage of 5 or more operable vehicles.

Priority 3 violations

Priority 3 violations are nuisance violations that pose potential health and safety hazards.

Violations include junk accumulation and trash accumulation.

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The changes got full support from the commissioners.

“I like the prioritization,” said Commissioner Kathy Schwartz. “Our planners can focus on what they are trained to do. Junk, trash, public safety, I’m not sure our planners have the training needed for that, even the code officer.”