Pierce County is getting creative to address one of its residents’ biggest complaints: derelict properties that turn into crime magnets.
Fly-by-night motels known for drug activity and prostitution might immediately come to mind, but that’s just one incarnation of the issue.
“You also have the residential house that has four bedrooms in it, but has 26 people living in it,” described Pierce County Sheriff’s Detective Ed Troyer. “They’re out doing different things from stealing to support heroin habits, or they’re doing drug deals right out of the houses.”
Law enforcement is typically the first agency to get involved, but Troyer said they don’t want to move on the situation too quickly. Often, the sheriff’s office will call in its undercover unit.
“Sometimes we stumble into these and there are big burglary rings and stolen property rings working,” Troyer said. “We don’t just want to make the nuisance property go away, we want to send the criminals to jail.”
Once the criminal aspect is addressed, code enforcement or the health department may get involved to address the property itself.
The Pierce County Council recently passed a new measure (Ordinance No. 2017-22s) to make delinquent properties the top priority of code enforcement. It also added funding to hire an additional enforcement officer.
In addition, the new ordinance requires the Planning and Public Works Department to create a new online portal for residents to see where delinquent properties are in the enforcement process. The creation of this portal is scheduled to be completed in November.
Once code enforcement and public health get involved with a nuisance property, that may be the end of it. But, that’s not always the case.
Troyer said if the property falls back into derelict status and again becomes home to criminal activity, it’s time to get the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office involved. Once they get the information, Prosecutor Mark Lindquist tries to take legal action within 90 days.
“Probably the most difficult step in this process is locating the owner,” Lindquist said. “Because, in many instances they’re an absentee owner.”
The first step is to give the owner an opportunity to make permanent changes to address the state of their property. To that end, the Pierce County Council is passing new regulations that spell out exactly what an abatement agreement will look like. It also gives the owner a timeline for action.
But, if the owner fails to address the derelict status, a second ordinance currently being finalized by the County Council (Ordinance No. 2017-29) spells out a graduated penalty system.
It requires the owners of problem properties to enter into an abatement agreement within 15 days and gives the county the ability to pursue receivership as a way to facilitate the cleanup effort.
Troyer and Lindquist say they are on track to shut down about 10 of these nuisance properties this year. They hope once the new ordinances are in effect, that number will go up.
Still, county resources are limited. They have several ways to prioritize properties.
“First question is: Are we hearing about this from the neighbors? What are the neighbors saying and how many of the neighbors are saying it?” Lindquist said.
Getting calls from multiple neighbors is a good indication of the problem because it assures them that it’s not a case of a feud between a couple of individuals.
Of course, criminal activity, especially involving violence, will also move properties to the top of the list.