March 13, 2008

First Round of Public Hearings Held Regarding ‘Junk’ Vehicles

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. But when the treasure or junk in question poses a health issue, the City of Memphis sent a message at the March 6th council meeting that it expects the problem areas to be cleaned up.

The city hosted the first of a series of public hearings for property owners found to be in violation of city code section 220.050 that prohibits open storage of inoperable vehicles or vehicles deemed by the City to constitute a public safety hazard.

Five registered letters were mailed last week to property owners that were not in compliance with the ordinance.

“We felt like this was the best way to insure due process for the parties involved,” stated city attorney David Peppard. “The city could simply abate the problem by towing the vehicles and it could even be prosecuted in municipal court, but we chose this route first.”

Mayor Roger Gosney added that the hearing process would reinforce the city’s position on enforcing the oridnances and offer the involved parties an opportunity to fix the problem first.

“Voluntary compliance is far better than forced compliance,” Gosney said. “Then if we have to use forced compliance, we can insure that we went about it the right way and allowed those involved every opportunity to resolve the problem.”

Alderman James Parker added that there are options for the property owners.

“I talked to people today and these vehicles can be sold,” Parker said. “So there are other options than just parking them in the middle of your yard. That said, we didn’t get to where we are overnight and this issue is not going to go away overnight either.”

In the first hearing, Chick Downing objected to the ordinance wording that stated it protected public safety. He noted he drove around town prior to the hearing and quickly built a list of numerous other ordinance violations that he felt were far bigger public safety concerns than the vehicles parked in his back yard.

“The two that will not run, I will move them, but the others, they are money to me in my pocket,” Downing said.

The vehicles values were a central theme for several of the following hearings.

Steve Snodgrass noted that he is a licensed body shop and that his property is zoned commercial, making him exempt from Section 220.050, which states the law does not apply to businesses licensed as salvage, swap, junk dealer, towing or storage facility. However the former city police chief added that he would gladly voluntarily comply with the city’s requests.

Rick Sponseller noted he, like Downing, used the vehicles stored on his property for parts. He added that the vehicles could soon be made operable when funding becomes available.

He added that when the weather permits, he plans to remove some of the vehicles and to build an enclosure for the remaining cars and trucks at his two properties.

Several citizens were present for the meetings and voiced concerns that the city needed to be cleaned up, urging the city to work beyond these small steps that are being taken to remove junk vehicles.

Peppard pointed out that the hearings and the ordinance enforcement were not about aesthetics.

“This is not a law about what something looks like,” Peppard said. “You can paint your house polka dotted or the most objectionable color to your neighbors, but they have no ground to take legal action on the matter. This enforcement is strictly dealing with public safety issues related to abandoned vehicles.”

However several of the issues do go hand in hand, particularly the city’s desire to have the ground surrounding such vehicles maintained to insure they do not harbor an abundance of rodents. The city also suggested stored vehicles be covered so they do not retain water and act as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

“We are not going to be the Gestapo, but we are going to see that things get done and these properties are brought into compliance with the ordinance,” stated city marshal John Myers. “We have had a lot of folks that have voluntarily complied with the notices to abate the ordinance violations. If no action is taken, the property owner will receive a hearing notice and the legal process will begin.”

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