CHIPLEY — A lack of countywide code enforcement hurts development in Washington County, Planning Commissioner Jim Ackerman said on Wednesday, April 17.
Addressing the Washington County Board of Commissioners at their April workshop, Ackerman called on the board to form a committee to study the current code enforcement policies and make recommendations for improvement.
“I would like for the board to appoint a committee with myself and the county attorney on it so that we can look at the code enforcement ordiances,” Ackerman said. “I think we should also look into appointing a magistrate to oversee enforcement.”
“It is hard to get growth in a county when the county is not able to handle enforcing its own codes,” Ackerman said. He sited an article from the March 21 edition of the Panama City News-Herald that stated that Washington County ranked as one of the worst counties in the state in matters of health.
The “2013 County Health Rankings” outlined several factors, which, directly or indirectly, impact residents’ overall well-being, according to the article, which was also published in the Washington County News on March 23.
These included smoking, drinking, obesity, teen pregnancy and even high school graduation. The study was conducted as a partnership between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. It included nearly every county in the U.S.
Washington County performed worse than the state average in nearly every category. For example, 25 percent of its residents are in “poor or fair health,” compared to 16 percent statewide and 17 percent in Bay County. About 9 percent of the county’s babies are born with a low birth weight, compared to 8.7 percent statewide and 8.4 percent in Bay County.
Twenty-seven percent of the county’s adults smoke; 19 percent smoke statewide and 22 percent do in Bay County. Thirty-six percent of the county’s adults are obese, compared with 26 percent statewide and 27 percent in Bay County.
Ackerman’s concerns were primarily with code enforcement, which he said presents a poor image to businesses and families that may be interested in relocating to Washington County.
Ackerman showed the board photographs of county properties that were either abandoned or neglected. He also showed photos of several mobile homes that had been stripped or were in the process of being stripped for sale as scrap metal.
“Of the code enforcement complaints filed in 2004, five are still open,” Ackerman said. “From 2005, 15 complaints are still open, from 2006 there are 31 complaints still open and from 2007 there are 28 open complaints.”
In 2008, code enforcement started taking a backseat to other county projects, Ackerman said. “Now if someone calls, the dog catcher is sent out to take a picture of the offense,” he said.
Ackerman noted that candidates for public office in adjoining counties were making code enforcement a part of their campaign platforms, and awareness of code enforcement is being raised in general.
The county code enforcement ordinances cover junk cars, nuisances, litter, abandoned houses, alcohol, parks and recreation, 911 numbering system, animals and hazardous conditions, Ackerman said.
Commissioner Todd Abbott said he served on the Code Enforcement Committee with Ackerman in the past, and agreed that enough was not being done to enforce existing codes.
Ackerman described one of his neighbor’s property as being “like Sanford & Son, it’s a fiasco.”
“We have people living out in the county, who want to live the way their forefathers lived,” said Commissioner Charles Brock. “They don’t want to change, and they don’t want to be told to change.”
“If the county wants to put a badge and a gun on somebody and send them out there, they’re in for a big surprise,” Brock said.
“I think most people in the county want to comply with the law,” Abbott said, “but there is a small circle of people that don’t want to be told what to do with their property.”
“I agree with it 100 percent in a city like Chipley, where you’re living elbow-to-elbow, but in some of these rural communities, there are only three or four houses within miles of each other, and usually they’re all family,” Brock said.
Abbott said he would also like to look at the option of having a magistrate deal with enforcement. “We don’t want neighbors fighting neighbors,” he said.
Ackerman said that the county’s enforcement code allows for anonymous complaints to protect residents from retaliation by angry neighbors. County residents can also form community groups to report code violations.
“This is a politically explosive issue,” County Attorney Jeff Goodman said. “People really care about property rights in Washington County, and land is blood to these people.”
Goodman said that if the board decided to pursue stepping up code enforcement, then making sure there is due process should be a primary consideration. “I wouldn’t want to touch this if I were on the board,” Goodman said, “but if you want to push it, we do need a better process.”
Public Works Director David Corbin told the board that the county budgets $5,000 a year for code enforcement presently, and Corbin oversees complaints.
Abbott said 98 percent of the complaints the county receives are handled by the property owners with no problems.
“We don’t carry a gun, so we use diplomatic methods to solve our conflicts, and we treat the public with dignity,” Corbin said. “I’m proud of the success we’ve had with a $5,000 budget.”
Corbin noted the topic of hiring a magistrate to oversee code enforcement has come before the board in the past but no action was taken by the commissioners.
“II think everyone sees the importance of code enforcement,” Board Chairman Alan Bush said. “But I think we should be certain we can recognize what is important and focus on that, We don’t want to cause a political furor or put neighbor against neighbor.”