By Bryce Abshier
At a recent Belleview City Commission meeting, City Attorney Fred Landt suggested a new way to give Belleview Code Enforcement more teeth: criminal charges and possible jail time.
While that sounds extreme, Landt didn’t intend on sending people to jail for overgrown lawns or trashy front yards. Rather, he meant criminal charges for the serious, unending, and hazardous violations that can last on for months, or years, in some scenarios.
“On a number of occasions, at various meetings we’ve had discussions with folks who have come in from the community complaining about code enforcement, wanting faster action, particularly some problematic code enforcement where the violation is on homestead property which presents problems trying to foreclose liens,” Landt explained. He undoubtedly was referencing the two-year-long RV drama that has plagued the neighborhood of SE 55th Court. Neighbors have long complained to Belleview Code Enforcement and city officials about a derelict RV, and the tenant who was described as “crazy” and “destructive” at an April Code Board hearing.
At that same April Belleview Code Board hearing, it was decided that Brenda Turner, who owns the property where the RV sits, had 14 days to correct the situation or fines of $250 per day would be accrued until a maximum of $5,000 was reached. At that time, a lien would be placed against the property. Due to Florida state law, if a property has homestead exemption, Belleview cannot foreclose on it. So even with a lien against the property for unpaid fines, there is little else the City of Belleview can do as things currently are. This presents a problem when a property owner is totally non-compliant, leaving Belleview with little or no recourse.
“Our Code does not provide for the alternative of writing a citation that would be a misdemeanor and go to county court,” said Landt. “I’m going to suggest that you approve amending our code to allow that alternative method of enforcement. Not as a substitute but as an alternative method, so that when cases arise that it would be better for someone to perhaps face a misdemeanor charge, that not only could carry a fine but incarceration for up to 60 days for continuing violations where they don’t address it,” Landt added.
“It would be, I think, the fastest and most effective way to address some of the problematic violations that drag out for a long time, and then we’re faced with it being a homestead that you can’t foreclose on,” said Landt.
Mayor Christine Dobkowski found this to be too extreme. “I would be hesitant to support that type of ordinance. I think that criminal sanctions and jail time is probably extreme for violations of city code,” replied Mayor Dobkowski.
Commissioner Goldman was also reluctant at first. “I’m inclined to agree with you. I’ll be voting no when we vote for this. I don’t necessarily want to send somebody to jail because they wont clean up there yard,” said Commissioner Mike Goldman. “I’m always about optics. I just don’t know how the story would look in the press if we just sent somebody to jail for 60 days because they’ve got a junk car in their front yard,” Goldman added.
Belleview Police Chief Terry Holland didn’t believe the State’s Attorney would be willing to prosecute people for code enforcement violations. “The State’s Attorney Office has been very reluctant to pursue code enforcement issues. We’ve tried before and they wouldn’t pursue them,” explained Holland.
Commissioner Smith was undecided. “I don’t really like the idea either, but I also don’t like the idea of not having any progress with people. I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it a little bit,” said Commission Bo Smith.
Commissioner Ray Dwyer believed something had to be done. “I agree with you guys on these minor offenses, and things of that nature, but I’m not concerned with someone going to jail in a situation… like the RV situation, where it is a danger to these kids,” said Dwyer. “It’s a danger what is going on in there, and they’ve been warned multiple times. The code enforcement has been there multiple times. At some point, something has to arise to get their attention to get that danger gone.”
“Obviously I don’t want people going to jail for lawns and trash,” Dwyer added. “Maybe after so many times, when we get into situations like we are in now currently, I think that would warrant a notice to appear before a judge.”
As the debate carried on and more discussion followed, Commissioners began to kick the tires on a “tiered” system of code enforcement violations. This would involve classifications of code enforcement issues, where the dangerous and unending violations are handled by criminal court. The Belleview City Commission will explore this topic further at a future meeting.