Junk yard in the city limits

Visitor Question: I'm just at the end of my rope trying to figure out what to do about a junk yard that is down the street from me. It isn't a surprise that this thing is just plain ugly. But also it causes us to have traffic from people who just like cars, who often come just to see what is new. We have teenagers going there to party at all hours of the weekend nights too.

Another thing is that sometimes we see gas and oil leaking out of the wrecked cars, vans, trucks, boats, and what have you. I am afraid that this is ending up in a pretty little creek that we used to have just beyond the junk yard.

I cannot find out who owns this monster because the county is showing the owner as an LLC company. The clerk at the county told me that she doesn't know who the actual owner is and that an LLC (whatever that is) only has to show a representative, in this case an attorney. Is this true?

We were annexed into the city about five years ago and I would have thought that by this time, they would have gotten rid of this thing. That is one of the main reasons I didn't oppose the annexation.

What can we do?

Editors Reply: We can think of a few options. Two of them involve learning about your city, if you don’t already know. Specifically, you need to ask whether they have a zoning ordinance, and if so, what zoning district the junk yard lies in. (Just because it is called a "district" does not mean that there is only one area of the city that has that district designation; think about a zoning district as just the category your zoning falls under.)

If the junk yard were trying to locate in that district today, would that be permitted? You can often answer that question yourself, as these days the zoning ordinances of many cities are online for all to see; if it is not online, finding out about this will mean a phone call or visit to city hall. The rules for each zoning district are shown in a section for that zoning district usually called Permitted Uses. Often there are also Conditional Uses or Special Uses that may be permitted under certain circumstances.

You might not find the words junk yard, so you have to think of synonyms such as maybe automobile salvage yard or facility. Even more likely, you may not find junk yards mentioned at all. If you have any doubts, then you need to ask someone in the zoning section of the planning department.

But even if a new junk yard would not be permitted today, odds are pretty good that if the junk yard was already existing before the annexation, it became something called a nonconforming use. Usually a nonconforming use is allowed to continue indefinitely, but not allowed to expand or rebuild if it destroyed. So probably you are out of luck in terms of pressuring your city to enforce its own zoning ordinance, but we still like the idea of you as a property owner understanding that information.

Very few cities still have any provision for getting rid of nonconforming uses. Scattered cities at one time provided for amortization of a nonconforming use, requiring its discontinuation within a certain period of time, sometimes even with city payment. Now court cases have made it extremely unlikely that a city would continue its legal exposure to challenges that requiring a discontinuation of an existing business is a violation of the "takings" clause of the U.S. constitution.

An interesting wrinkle for you to daydream about might be to consider whether the city could use that land as a park, golf course, lake, flash flooding retention facility, or whatever is appropriate in your location. Then you could organize with your neighbors to get your city interested in that project; if the city declares it needs that land for a "public purpose," of course it can use its condemnation (eminent domain) powers to obtain it, although it must pay the owner a fair value. Since many states are quite interested in cleaning up junk yards, they might be willing to help foot the bill for the environmental clean-up involved. This is the major project that it sounds like, and certainly would not bring you immediate relief, but if you and your neighbors can think of a logical new use for the land, it is a possibility. Of course, parks too can bring you some traffic and noise, but a new public land use is much healthier for your property value than wrecked cars.

Next you need to learn about the code enforcement performance of the city. Frankly, the code enforcement office probably can’t do anything about the junk yard unless it is violating a specific part of a code that your city has adopted as law. Most cities use a standard international code, sometimes with local amendments. But for problems such as leaking liquids, there is a remote chance this could help. It's worth a phone call.

The city also probably has some mechanism for vector control if you are having a rat or mosquito problem because of this facility.

The city also could have a noise ordinance, which might help with the teenage party problem if you can get the police to come quickly enough. Ask about that too when you are dealing with city hall.

Lastly, in terms of water quality, your state is very likely to have some authority to investigate complaints about industrial fluids leaking into a stream. City staff people may be able to help you connect with the right state office; if they say they don't know, a little internet research on your own will turn up the office that deals with water quality in your state. Call or email them to see what they can do. Often in our experience these offices are overwhelmed and understaffed, and a contact may not produce immediate results or any results at all, but this is definitely worth a try for that small aspect of your problem.

You asked about the LLC property ownership. Yes, it is true that in most states you cannot see the real owner's identity if they have shielded it by setting up this type of corporation. You do have the right idea though about trying to contact the property owner. It's still a good idea to send a certified letter to the representative of the LLC, who probably will ignore it, but perhaps keep it in mind if the representative is an ethical person.

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