Among the many things I cherish about America is that we value so highly the sanctity of private property that one neighborhood might contain both a yard that mimics an English garden, and a place where the outdoor decor runs more to engine blocks and rusty lawnmower blades.

Most of us prefer to see the former as we walk or drive past.

But as a society we tolerate the latter.

Up to a point, anyway.

Just where that threshold lies — the line separating the merely squalid properties and those that warrant attention from the government to protect the public — is a vexing sort of calculus.

I suspect most cities wrestle occasionally with this conundrum. Baker City has done so several times over the past couple decades with various proposals about rules and their enforcement.

In the fall of 2017 then-Police Chief Wyn Lohner urged the City Council to approve an ordinance allowing the city to seek a court order banning access, including by the owner, to properties where certain crimes or property maintenance violations were rampant.

Although Lohner’s idea was prompted more by the prevalence of crimes, the proposed ordinance could have been triggered by recurring issues involving, say, the storage of decrepit vehicles or heaps of trash.

The City Council, after hearing from residents who were leery of giving the government so much authority over private property, tabled the matter.

But little more than a year later, during their Dec. 11, 2018, meeting, councilors had a similar discussion.

The main topic was the property at 1975 Birch St., in east Baker City. The city has cited the resident, Lucas Gwin, for violating the city’s property maintenance ordinance three times since 2015.

The parcel was cleaned up enough to comply with the ordinance but relatively quickly reverted to its formerly filthy state.

In June 2017 the city spent $2,000 to clean up the property — the cost attached as a lien on the property — but by December of that year the city had again cited Gwin.

This time the estimated clean up tab is $5,600.

Mark Powell, the code enforcement officer for Baker City Police, told councilors he thinks the city should adopt a stricter property maintenance ordinance.

Set against the dismal backdrop of Gwin’s property — which according to a report to city councilors was “infested with mice and other rodents” — Powell’s idea hardly seems unreasonable.

(Although the lack of specificity, when it comes to the “other rodents,” troubles me. The order Rodentia includes, among the familiar mice and rats, such beasts as scaly-tailed squirrels, springhares and the Laotian rock rat.)

I doubt any great number of people would argue that the government doesn’t have an obligation to try to deal with situations such as the Birch Street property.

These aren’t merely eyesores — a clichéd but impossibly subjective description. Places like the Birch Street parcel pose potential health hazards to the public.

The trash might be confined within the property boundaries but I’m pretty sure mice, which are rather more mobile than mounds of garbage, don’t heed such legal borders.

(Nor, I suspect, do Laotian rock rats, although I admit being unfamiliar with the species’ physical attributes.)

The current ordinance allows the city to clean up the mess, as Powell explained — but the taxpayers pick up the tab.

As a deterrent the tax lien is ineffectual at best, since the bill doesn’t come due unless the property sells.

Worse, the city has no mechanism to prevent residents from starting to replenish these unauthorized landfills as soon as the last dump truck drives away with its noxious (and possibly toxic) cargo.

The proposed ordinance the Council tabled in theory could have stopped these perpetual problems, at least temporarily, by making the property off limits.

In pitching the ordinance to councilors, Lohner insisted that his intention was to focus only on the “worst of the worst” properties — and again, he was worried more about homes where crime, not trash, was the recurring issue.

There is little reason to believe that the ordinance, had it passed, would have resulted in a rash of properties being locked up.

For one thing, the ordinance would not have given the city unilateral authority; rather, officials would have had to obtain a court order.

For another, the city of Springfield, whose ordinance was the model for Baker City’s proposed rule, had in three years sought, and received, just two court orders banning access to properties. Springfield’s population is about 61,000, more than six times Baker City’s.

Still and all, Baker City’s proposed ordinance, whatever the police chief’s intention, would not have been limited to those “worst of the worst” cases — a description impossible to capture in a legally enforceable ordinance, in any case.

In theory the city could use such an ordinance to punish a property owner who runs afoul, repeatedly, of any section of the property maintenance or animal codes.

The former, last updated in 2009, deals with matters that strike me as having little in common with the kind of blight exemplified by the Birch Street property.

You can, for instance, violate the property maintenance ordinance if you own firewood that “is not safely stacked and usable.”

The ordinance defines “usable” firewood as that which contains “more wood than rot.”

Notwithstanding that woodstove owners, as a rule, prefer sound wood to rotten, I don’t think the government needs to codify the issue, especially in an ordinance with punitive provisions.

The City Council didn’t take any action following its Dec. 11 discussion about the Birch Street property, and councilors didn’t take up the matter in its most recent meeting, on Tuesday.

In a report included with the Dec. 11 agenda, City Manager Fred Warner Jr. suggested councilors consider appointing a committee, whose members would include residents, to ponder the issue and potentially draft recommendations for an ordinance that, as Warner put it, “protects the rights of homeowners while still keeping our neighborhoods safe and relatively nuisance free.”

That’s a concise summary of the goal. But it also in effect restates, without offering a concrete solution, the conundrum I mentioned earlier.

Nonetheless I endorse Warner’s idea about creating a committee.

I’m not convinced it’s possible to write an ordinance that strikes a balance between giving the city a meaningful way to deal with debacles such as 1975 Birch Street, without potentially snaring much less egregious “offenders” in the same regulatory net.

But I expect the odds of reaching that precarious position are improved if we look outside City Hall for ideas.

J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

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