Empire editorial: City enforcement needs some teeth

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2007

While the building of an unpermitted truck scale has stirred up ire about permit violations at the city, the fracas points to a bigger problem - how to enforce the city's land-use code.

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The city has more than 300 code violations of varying degrees on its hands. One can't help but ask what's wrong with this picture when that many have failed to meet city code, which is intended to keep the public safe and the environment healthy.

The issue came to the forefront after Secon construction company built a $70,000 truck scale without proper permits and too close to Lemon Creek, a fish stream where a 50-foot setback is required. The truck scale was built for the $27.5 million Sunny Point intersection project, a massive undertaking that will reconfigure part of Egan Drive and create the city's first highway underpass.

City planners thought the truck scale should be shut down when the permit violations were discovered. City Manager Rod Swope, however, decided to let Secon continue to operate, saying he was worried that a shutdown would slow down a major public project and potentially even throw it into another construction season.

Juneau resident Dixie Hood appealed city approval of an after-the-fact variance Secon received for the truck scale. A decision on that appeal is yet to come.

But the real question is why doesn't city enforcement have more teeth?

Swope could have slapped Secon with a fine, without shutting down the project, but chose not to. His reason was that the city, under state law, couldn't penalize Secon more than $300, which was virtually pointless on a $27.5 million project.

That's part of what's wrong here - if a homeowner builds a garage without the right permits he or she gets the same fine as a major contractor who violates city rules.

The city does have one enforcement option - it can fine a violator $300 per day for a violation so that the total fine is much higher. The city needs to use that daily fine more often, and charge it retroactively, if it wants its land-use code to be something more than a joke.

State law that limits fines for citations to $300 is a huge part of the problem. The city should work with the local legislative delegation to propose a revision allowing municipalities to invoke tougher penalties for violators.

And to be fair and effective, fines for contractors should be much heavier than those for homeowners. Otherwise, businesses have little financial incentive to bother with city requirements.

The city has the option to file criminal charges against a violator, but the offense needs to be severe and usually threaten someone's health or safety. More effective fines would give cities an enforcement hammer without resorting to criminal charges, which often just aren't appropriate.

Yet another possibility that the city hasn't explored is issuing temporary stop-work orders that would serve as a penalty, rather than shutting down a project until permits are in place and city requirements are all met. The latter type of shutdown could take weeks and pose problems for the community, particularly if the project is a public one.

But if a project is halted for just 10 or 15 days, it would deliver the message that the city means business, without totally delaying a major public project.

The city's willingness to work with violators when the infractions are small is reasonable.

But it's got to beef up enforcement of its rules, if it's to be taken seriously.

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