How to Get City to Enforce Ordinance

Visitor Question: The City where I live has a definite zoning ordinance (Code 82.15) that states commercial vehicles are not to be parked in residential areas. There is a 25' towing truck parked in the driveway directly next door to me. Its exhaust fumes, which are directly next to my bedroom, have caused me to move into another room to sleep for health reasons. I have reported this to the City, but nothing has been done. Any suggestions?

Editors Reply: Thank you for the great zoning question. In this situation, you definitely need to continue to escalate your reporting and requests for action until something is done.

Yet we have to emphasize that this does not mean displaying anger or name calling. Remain civil and businesslike, and expect your city representatives to do the same.

Our approach would be to report it yet again to the same person in the same way. Maybe he or she will get tired of you calling and eventually get around to taking action. Show empathy for that person too, because he or she may have received a subtle or not so subtle message that your city does not want to be seen as aggressive in zoning enforcement. But if you continue to call, that person may at least talk to a supervisor to raise the possibility that something should be done.

While we assume that you are dealing with a city staff person, we would suggest that at the same time, you start talking with elected officials. If you have a ward-based, geographic system of electing your city council (or whatever it may be called in your location), talk first to that representative if you haven't.

Where city council persons are elected "at large," meaning there is no geographic restriction on where each elected person lives, it becomes a little more complex. In that case, approach a council person who is visible, vocal, and not afraid to take a stand. If you are personally acquainted with a council member, that is a good place to start also.

Depending on how much faith you have in the elected council person, you may decide to go to the mayor (or equivalent) right away also. Often in very small cities council people defer to the mayor on many decisions and complaints from taxpayers like you.

When talking to elected officials, emphasize just two points. First, they have a law passed by a previous city council, and they should want to enforce it. After all, they would like subsequent city councils to insist on enforcing laws that they pass.

Second, you have followed the process by reporting this obvious zoning violation to city staff. Yet action has not been taken, and you have a right as a citizen to understand why this is happening. Don't be overly critical of the staff member when you talk to a city council person or mayor, because after all, they may be friends. But do give the facts about when you called and what has happened as a result--in this case, nothing.

Ask the elected official to investigate and report back to you, and ask them when they would be able to let you know what they find. This gives you an excuse to contact the elected official again if they too fail to report back to you.

Be sure to take photographs of the tow truck at various times of day and in various weather conditions, so that city staff and officials understand that this is not an isolated instance of the tow truck being in the driveway once. It is remotely possible that the inspector followed up on your complaint, did not see the tow truck in the driveway at that time, and therefore felt that he or she could not act to enforce the zoning ordinance properly.

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Comments for How to Get City to Enforce Ordinance

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City won't enforce noise ordinances or speed limits.
by: Anonymous

The Ward where I live has 2 alders (there are 8 in all for the city). One of my two alders has simply suggested that we were stupid to buy our home.

I had read the ordinances and simply expected that the city would enforce them. It doesn't. The other alder never says a thing. Both run for reelection unchallenged. So I decided to talk to the mayor (who also runs for re-election unchallenged). He listens...then does nothing. And he was one of the folks who signed the ordinances into effect about 6 years ago. Relative to the speeding problem...we haven't seen, or heard, a city or county traffic stop within several blocks for over a year. What do I do next?

Editors Comment: Wow, that's frustrating. I think what you do next is create a community organization, if you have time and energy for that. There's an entire section of this website devoted to that topic.

A more time-limited project for you would be to encourage some good people you know to run against these folks, who don't deserve to be in public office if they never intend to either enforce or repeal all the laws. Not to mention it's outrageous for public officials to suggest you never should have moved to this town.

Loud, loud mufflers and lots of speeding in a small city
by: Anonymous

Our mayor and 4 of 8 common council refuse to enforce ordinances regarding over-loud mufflers on cars, trucks and motorcycles (especially motorcycles) on streets within the city limits. I'm not talking about just a "little" over 84 decibels.

A good number of these ordinance violators are also speeding through residential areas within the city limits at 10-15 mph over the posted speed limits (mufflers roaring, of course). The mayor says the city police can't handle this speeding problem. County police help out a little, every now and then, and state police have handed out traffic tickets on a couple of occasions (we asked them for the help we don't get from the city and county police). They staked out a stretch of city streets for about an hour and a half on a couple of occasions late last summer, during which time my neighbors and I counted over 15 pullovers for speeding near us. We haven't seen a city cop pull over a speeder anywhere near our homes for the last 4 months.

One suggestion, from one of the aldermen at a common council meeting, at which a couple of citizens rose to complain about the noise and speeding in their neighborhoods, was that the citizens/property owners were stupid for buying their homes in the first place.

What should we do (short of selling our homes and moving)?

Editors Reply: It sounds like you are doing many of the right things. Complaining to your common council often, persistently, and in a civil tone is usually the best strategy. Maybe you need a few videos with sound to help you make your case. Maybe you need to invite your common council members out to your street at a time when the motorcycles are likely to be cruising around.

Since your council says the police cannot handle this, you may want to take a city budget approach to this. Find out when your city discusses and adopts its budget, usually annually, and at that time, ask for more traffic cops.

It sounds as though the state police were effective. Be sure you find out which streets near you are state roads, and then ask the state police for a crackdown campaign on the speeding. In our experience, states are not likely to have noise laws, so that part may be left up to your city, but at least cutting down on the speeding may make it less fun for the motorcyclists to choose your particular neighborhood.

Unfortunately there is no easy answer for situations such as this, but you have to keep making your own kind of noise with your common council.

Rodent feeding
by: Anonymous

I live in a suburban community in Michigan and I have a neighbor across the street from me who feeds the squirrels constantly (and birds). This has led to a number of problems including rats, holes dug in my yard, and much more. I contacted my city and over the course of several months I was tasked with logging everything, including pictures. At that time, the neighbor would openly feed the squirrels. They ended up getting probation which expires November 2022. The problem is that the squirrels continue to go to their property, get a nut, and then come to mine to bury it and return to the neighbor. The city says I need to see the neighbor actually feeding the squirrels and capture proof to violate the probation. Obviously the neighbor isn't going to do that openly anymore.

In a meeting that I had with several city officials, including the attorney, I was told there was nothing they can do unless I can prove the neighbor is actually handing the squirrels nuts. Seeing them go to the neighbor's back yard, and to mine, and back again, is not enough. The neighbor is now putting up a privacy fence. All I can do is live trap them which is only minimal at best.

What else can I do to get the city to enforce their ordinances about rodent feeding/harborage? Thank you!

Editors Comment: It seems to us that the city is acting correctly in this case. They would need some solid evidence that the neighbor is feeding squirrels; squirrel behavior won't be accepted in a court of law. Also in court, the city would be very likely to lose if they brought a violation without some photographic evidence and your neighbor appealed it.

We know this isn't what you wanted to hear, but as a former code enforcement official, I can tell you that from the city's perspective, a case against your neighbor isn't winnable at this time. A more fruitful approach may be trying to rebuild rapport with your neighbor so that you can suggest squirrel feeders up high that don't attract rats. Unfortunately squirrels and rats tend to like the same foods, so it's important to make food inaccessible to rats.


strong mayor
by: Anonymous

What if your city Mayor is not enforcing laws or ordinances? The Mayor tells the officers not to enforce these on/off. What if a Mayor and their office do not return phone calls or emails?
This is a city with a Strong Mayor-council form of government. What can be done?

Editors Reply: Whether a strong mayor or weak mayor, your best recourse in this case is to work to elect a different mayor. (For other folks, "strong mayor" refers to the amount of power give to the mayor as compared to the city council.) Mayors and councils have no business telling staff members not to enforce laws. Work to build resolve on the part of the council to stand up for the laws passed by previous councils in public statements. While the council may be weak in comparison to the mayor in legal powers, the council will be able to command a certain amount of attention from the media and voters. Organize a group to support code enforcement of all types; if the codes are considered inappropriate today, the correct course of action is to repeal them. Otherwise, local laws need to be enforced.

In terms of failure to answer and respond to phone calls and emails, that too should be publicized in any way possible. If you don't have a social media account and a following, someone who agrees with you will have access to those things. Work to make it known that the mayor does not reply. Again, if you have an organization, this makes the social media statements appear stronger.

A Government Agency is Immune
by: Anonymous

IC 34-13-3-3. Immunity of governmental entity or employee
IC 34-13-3-3 Immunity of governmental entity or employee
Sec. 3. A governmental entity or an employee acting within the scope of the employee's employment is not liable if a loss results from the following:
(8) The adoption and enforcement of or failure to adopt or enforce:
(A) a law (including rules and regulations); or
(B) in the case of a public school or charter school, a policy;

Editors Comment: Yes, your quote reinforces what we often say. Code enforcement officers don't have liability for failure to enforce laws.

Blighted properties in Jasonville, Indiana
by: Anonymous

I agree that persistence usually prevails when you are trying to solve a community problem. However, I have been addressing this problem with the City Council and the previous mayor for about ten years now to no avail.

You mentioned code enforcement but Greene County, Indiana has no code enforcement officers. It is up to the County Commissioners to address issues in the unincorporated areas of the county and to the city and town officials in the incorporated areas.

Some of the towns like Worthington are willing to address safety issues but the City Clerk in Jasonville just tells the council members and the mayor that there is no room in the city budget for anything other than operating expenses.

Ironically, the City of Jasonville has the second highest tax rate in the county. The reason is because Assessed Values of real property are so low due to the condition of the neighborhoods. There is only one other property in my addition that is maintained at all. The rest are severely neglected and uninhabitable including several with gaping holes in their roofs.

This problem is not going to be resolved until something catastrophic happens. Several years ago, a limb from a dead tree on city property fell on my truck destroying my camper shell. My insurance company reimbursed me for my damages but the insurance company declined to subrogated their claim to attempt to recover their loss from the city because I didn't have proof (letters or audio recordings) of my notices to the city that their tree presented a hazard to my property. What a travesty of justice!

Blighted properties in Jasonville, Indiana
by: Anonymous

Thank you for your suggestions. Unfortunately, a media blitz is not practical in this semi-rural area because the media is also beholden to the local politicians who are the root cause of the problem. In fact, I met in the newspaper office with the local newspaper editor and the County Commissioner who created part of the problem. The County Commissioner told the newspaper editor in front of me that he would tell her what she could write about the problem!

Editors Comment: Then you will have to choose something else from the menu of options. There is a high probability that many residents feel just as you do, but in a semi-rural situation, they are often too polite to want to get involved. The key is to help people realize that many others have the same perspective, but that is much more easily said than done in your type of setting. All we can say is that persistence usually chips away at resistance to code enforcement.

Blighted and neglected properties
by: Anonymous

I have a very similar problem with blighted and neglected properties in Jasonville, Indiana where I own property but do not reside permanently. The city has an Unsafe Building ordinance and an Unsafe Building fund.

However, despite numerous complaints to the City Council, this ordinance is not being enforced. Part of the problem is the fact that many of these blighted properties are owned by local politicians who can influence the city's Fire Department, the department authorized to administer the city's Unsafe Building Law.

Do you have any suggestions for what property owners can do about this problem?

Editors Comment: Your only practical recourse in a situation like this is to band together with other concerned citizens and start making noise about this through social media, traditional media, and maybe even a petition drive. If it is serious enough, you may want a temporary organization with a snappy name and T-shirts. Raise awareness and don't hesitate to embarrass office holders if that is what the facts demand. Just don't be nasty about it; remain factual.

Someone might say you should sue, but it is likely that you would not have "standing," as it is called in legal circles. If you own adjoining property, that might work, but if you are suffering at a distance, that is a very unlikely path.

Another city ordinance not enforced
by: Anonymous

The city of Prattville, Alabama passed an ordinance in February 1995 to put a 10 foot private fence across the side of our street. They have refused to enforce this. What can be done?

Editors Comment Again, you will have to organize with your neighbors and take this issue to your city council. Ask your own city council representative (if they are chosen geographically in Prattville) why there is no enforcement. Be ready with all of the reasons that you want this law enforced. Current representatives may not be aware of the issues involved. Ask them to come out on site with you to see the need.

See the many articles on this website that touch on preparation for this. Even though your issue is not zoning, you might want to read our opposing a rezoning for some useful tips about getting ready to appear before a city council or commission.

City still fails to enforce ordinances
by: Anonymous

There are many blighted and neglected properties in the small city where I own property. This has severely depressed the value of my property.

I have contacted the mayor, the city council, and the Board of Public Works, all to no avail. I just keep getting the excuse that the city does not have any money to enforce their Unsafe Building and Neglected Property ordinances.

The Unsafe Building ordinance includes a provision for an Unsafe Building fund but apparently there is no means to transfer any money into this fund. What more can I do about this problem?

Editors Comment: You are going to have to organize with your fellow property owners to let the elected officials know that the current state of affairs is just unacceptable. An unsafe building that is allowed to deteriorate to the point of collapse is a legal liability for the property owner and potentially for a city government that does not enforce its ordinances.

Set up a meeting for you and other property owners to discuss this problem with the city attorney. Start sending letters to the city about each property that seems unsafe, and send a copy to the city attorney.

Also you might ask any local planners or university extension people that live in your area if there are any state laws or county or state resources that could be used to start to address the situation.

While enforcement does take some resources, such as having a qualified inspector, the expense involved is relatively small when compared to loss of property value and tax base in a deteriorating city. Perhaps they are thinking they would have to condemn each unsafe building, and it is true that legal expenses for the condemnation process can mount up. But you are well within your rights to insist on better explanations and more action.

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