HARKER HEIGHTS — The city is making slow progress in its effort to improve code enforcement, a neglected issue that building officials put at the top of the Heights “to do” list for 2013.
A recent mobile home park survey was the first step in the city’s enhanced code enforcement efforts, and code enforcement officers are moving toward operating in a “more proactive mode,” said Fred Morris, planning and development director.
But changes will not be obvious to the community for quite some time.
“We haven’t been real proactive in going out and looking for problems,” Morris said. “It’s a real change to go proactive and to go out looking for things; we’re moving into a more proactive mode but we’re doing it very, very slowly.”
Code enforcement officers do not routinely inspect neighborhoods and issue tickets for code violations, but they do respond to complaints and concerns from residents. The city tries to work with violators to repair problems before citations are issued, Morris said, but even that’s not foolproof. Notices are mailed out to property owners, but sometimes the notices are never seen. And if the owners are in the military, it can take a while for their mail to reach them.
“We get phone calls and emails all the time from Afghanistan and Iraq and Germany saying, ‘I got this letter from you,’” Morris said.
State regulations also bog down the city’s code enforcement progress.
“It takes a long time, because under the regulations of the city, which are adopted because of state regulations, you send someone a notice to address a situation at a property, they are given 30 days to address it, then you have to send another letter and it’s another 30 days,” Morris said. “Then if they still don’t comply, it’s turned over to the court.”
Once it reaches the court, the case is out of the city’s hands.
Fell through cracks
Despite the slow progress toward code enforcement, some residents are already feeling effects of the crawl. Code violations that fell through the cracks in the lackadaisical past are now being scrutinized, as in the case of Ferman and Geneva Weedon.
The Weedons have operated a airport shuttle service, ANS LLC, out of their home on Redwood Circle since 2004. When they started, they had just one transport vehicle and were in compliance with the city’s home business code that allows only one business-related vehicle to be parked at the house.
But over the years, the shuttle business grew and the Weedons added four more vehicles to their fleet. They had no idea the additional vehicles were prohibited, they said, until they tried to renew their annual taxi cab permit in January.
“Every year we have come to the city to have our permits given to us again, and every year we have been given permits to do this,” Geneva Weedon said. “We have gradually grown, and no one has said anything to us.”
The Weedons asked the city to review and amend the ordinance that allows just one commercial vehicle to be parked at a home business. The planning and zoning committee reviewed the request and unanimously agreed that all businesses — including the Weedons’ — comply with the ordinance as written.
Morris said home business occupation licenses are not historically reviewed, but the Weedons were flagged when they tried to renew their taxi cab permit.
“I assume we received some sort of complaint, and then when the taxi cab permit came up for renewal it was brought to our attention,” he said.
The Harker Heights City Council upheld the P&Z committee’s decision, leaving the Weedons to contemplate the possible demise of their business. But on Friday, Morris said the city did renew the taxi cab permit and the Weedons are negotiating to park their extra vehicles at the airport.
“We want to be fair and we want to be responsive; we don’t want to move too fast, but there’s things we want to move quickly on,” Morris said.