Council Debates ‘Problem Properties’ Ordinance
By: Laura M. Reckford
There are four lawyers on the 13-member Barnstable Town Council and legal issues were at the forefront as the council held a workshop last night to discuss proposed ordinances having to do with “problem properties.”
Council members parsed terms like “criminal offense” and “illegal activity,” trying to zero in on what types of behaviors the town is trying to discourage in an attempt to bring troublemakers in line with community standards.
The focus is on properties where, as the draft ordinance states, “illegal activity occurs on a regular basis.”
The ordinance would allow the town to alert the owner of a property and bill that person for police details if the police are called to the property often.
But how often and what crimes should be included in the category of police response was the subject of intense debate last night for the councilors who sat around a table for the almost-three-hour discussion in the selectmen’s conference room in town hall.
Giving the example of a neighbor borrowing another neighbor’s lawn mower without permission, Barnstable Town Councilor Frederick Chirigotis of Centerville, an attorney, wanted to stick with standard definitions of misdemeanors versus felonies when deciding what kinds of crimes counted against a property owner.
Town Councilor Thomas Rugo, also of Centerville and also an attorney, said he was concerned that the crimes being discussed are all alleged and therefore any fines the town imposes could be easily appealed.
Town Councilor Jennifer L. Cullum, a major supporter of the ordinance, said, “There are a few properties and we’re trying to send a message that we don’t want that in our town.”
She said the chief of police suggested that three responses to a house for a serious offense in a 12-month period would be cause for the ordinance to kick in with notifications to the landlord and eventually fines.
Other councilors suggested the right number was as low as two or as high as four.
Boston’s similar ordinance puts the number at eight offenses.
Councilor Ann B. Canedy of Barnstable Village, who is also an attorney, said she was concerned about unintended consequences.
Would the ordinance make landlords hesitant to rent to certain types of people, she wondered.
The ordinances were brought forward by a task force studying problems with rental properties that came out of the Voices of the Village meeting in the spring of 2011.
Voices of the Village was a community gathering focused on improving quality of life in Hyannis after negative publicity from a series of drug-related crimes, including a murder, grabbed local headlines.
A group studying quality of life issues worked with town officials to draw up a series of ordinances designed to target properties that are frequently visited by police or that for safety, noise, maintenance or overcrowding reasons, are disruptive to the neighborhood.
Barnstable Town Attorney Ruth J. Weil compared the town’s draft ordinance to one already in effect in Boston in order to ensure the language was proper.
Addressing Mr. Rugo’s concern, Ms. Weil said, in Boston’s ordinance, “you don’t need a conviction.”
But Barnstable Building Commissioner Thomas J. Perry said there is a case where a property owner in Dorchester is appealing the fines imposed by the city.
Barnstable Police Chief Paul B. MacDonald said the council has to trust the police to use their discretion.
“You have to have faith in your police department. . . . It will be scrutinized at every level,” he said.
Ms. Weil emphasized that the goal of the ordinances is quality of life, not fines.
Much discussion focused on an appeals process for the fines and whether the appeal should rest with the town manager or a committee appointed by the council.
The council is expected to take up the problem property ordinance, as well as the ordinance dealing with maintenance, at its first meeting in February to give Ms. Weil time to draft changes and alternate language to be discussed at the meeting.
At the council’s next meeting on January 17, it will likely take up other ordinances related to problem properties, in particular, those dealing with the age of renters and noise complaints.