Several citizens, including one seeking to recall District 4 commissioner Jarod Lovett, expressed opposition to commissioners’ March 1 decision to create the position of a full-time deputized code enforcement officer.
Timberline Road resident Joe Cannon, who is circulating a petition in an effort to force a recall election for Lovett’s commission seat, handed out anti-code enforcement officer paperwork for meeting attendees as they entered the commission building. District 3 commissioner John Ambrose and commission chairman Mike Bilderback voted for Lovett’s proposal to hire a code enforcement officer on March 1.
Cannon’s concerns included: 1.) the cost to taxpayers of the new position, which he estimated to be as much as $70,000 a year including benefits and vehicle perks, including fuel and auto insurance, 2.) what the officer would be doing after the first year when many violators have already been dealt with, 3.) no clear definition of what constitutes a code violation, 4.) the fact that the Magistrate Judge already handles such complaints, 5.) citizens could become injured while trying to comply with the county’s ordinance, 6.) tax dollars should be going for other safety concerns, such as road maintenance, 7.) the fact that commissioners increased the county millage rate last year and foreclosures have been rampant in Monroe County in recent years.
Cannon and Blount Road resident Ken Barton were the chief dissenters to the new position at Tuesday’s meeting. Although neither Cannon nor Barton asked in advance to be on the county agenda, Bilderback allowed the two to voice their concerns.
Barton asked commissioners how to learn more specifics about the requirements of the county code. Bilderback told Barton that the code is already part of the county’s current ordinance and agreed to provide a summary of the ordinance for interested citizens.
Barton also asked who previously gave county waste management director Dana Renaud, who currently heads up code enforcement, the authority to identify violations.
Barton inquired, “This lady that’s running up and down the road taking pictures of these properties and reporting to our commissioner evidently the conditions of the property and her feelings about the conditions of the property, is this just a concerned citizen of Monroe County that’s interested in the beautification of the county or is she an avid admirer of the commissioners or a family member? Who is she? We have a right to know who this person is who is inspecting our property and reporting it.”
Barton said he collects antique cars and owns numerous rental properties and doesn’t want to be responsible for things his renters do on his properties. Barton said he has evicted persons with drug issues, but High Falls has considerable issues with drugs, and some renters could potentially be dangerous for a code enforcement officer.
Barton warned, “I have run into situations where the laws can be so tight that you’re starting a small war. And you’re liable to get someone killed if you go up onto the wrong person’s property at the wrong time, and if they’re in the wrong mood. It’s something you might want to think about. You might be putting your officer into a compromising position, a dangerous position.”
Barton also said he’s had health issues, and told commissioners they could be liable if he gets sick, including a heart attack, while trying to adhere to the county code.
“Who’s responsible for that?” Barton asked. “You forced the issue. You forced it to happen.”
Barton also said he grew up in the Virginia mountain country where the laws were so strict that people were afraid to go outside, especially after they had consumed any alcohol.
Barton said, “They go to town on Saturday to get their bath and shave or get their hair cut or do a little shopping, they better be careful and not drink over one beer. It got that bad. . . I know it’s not that bad here, but it could get that bad here. North Carolina copied Virginia. Tennessee copied Virginia. Now Georgia is copying all of them. Let’s not get too carried away with these laws and these ordinances.”
Lovett responded that the county wouldn’t take responsibility for any health issues Barton, Cannon or others suffered as a result of the code.
Lovett said, “It’s going to be hard for you (Cannon) to sue us for something that’s covered in the ordinance now. if you’re forced to follow the law, I don’t think it’s a crime. But it’s a nice thought.”
Ambrose added that the code enforcement officer will also respond to matters such as loose dangerous dogs and tractor trailers traveling on county roads to avoid stopping at the I-75 weigh station. Ambrose said the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office is too busy dealing with drug matters and other crimes to handle code violations.
Cannon, who echoed many of Barton’s concerns, then urged commissioners to repeal the decision to create the code enforcement position if it fails.
Lovett, who sarcastically told Cannon he wrote a “nice article” in the paper in reference to a March 23 front page Reporter story about Cannon’s recall efforts (Cannon was not the author of the Reporter story), said the code enforcement officer would not be establishing any new laws that aren’t already in the county ordinance book.
“We’re not trying to infringe on your freedoms to own your property, but your freedoms cannot be taken at the loss of another person’s freedoms and their property values,” Lovett said. “And as long as you’re following the codes and ordinances that are here before me, then you don’t have an issue.”
Boxankle Road resident James Beavers said he too was opposed to hiring a code enforcement officer. Beavers said as taxpayers, residents who live in rural areas outside the Forsyth city limits should be able to have whatever they want on their properties as long as it doesn’t create a health or safety hazard for their neighbors.
Beavers said, “More restrictions means less freedom. We live in a rural area. . . No one pays my taxes but me. I cut my own grass when I feel like it. I’ll be 75 years old. I don’t need a code enforcement officer to come tell me when I need to cut my grass.”
Beavers added that the county building department head already fulfills many of the same duties of a code enforcement.
The opposition to the position came after Lakeshore Drive resident Alvin Crusan, who did ask to be on the agenda, expressed support for the position. Crusan said Renaud has no authority to enforce the law because she’s not deputized. Crusan said he has spoken with Monroe County Sheriff John Cary Bittick, who supports having a deputized code enforcement officer. Crusan also asked about the code enforcement officer’s salary. While Bilderback said that was yet-to-be-determined, Lovett said $70,000 was too high an estimate since beginning Monroe County deputies earn $12.82 per hour. Lovett said fines and forfeitures will be used to aid in paying for the position and the sheriff’s office has existing vehicles that could be used.
Another defender of the position was Lovett’s own father, John Lovett, a River Walk resident.
“I’m proud of what he’s doing,” Lovett said of his son. “We’ve been in this county for about 13 years, and I know all the laws are on these books. And they’re just like speeding laws. If you don’t have the police to enforce them, then the law is no good at all.”
John Lovett said he works on old cars and has a garden on his property, but they are in an area where his neighbors can’t see them.
“We have one of the greatest opportunities in High Falls with the state park that’s anywhere in this county, but yet it’s so trashy around that park that people are scared to stay there,” John Lovett said. “People when they go there, they wanna be armed and everything else. For somebody to come up here and threaten the officer that might come to their house is kind of absurd to me. . . People have nice houses and they don’t want people beside them destroying their property values.”
Dennis Smith, another River Walk resident, said he too supported having a code enforcement officer, particularly due to the safety hazards presented by squatters living in abandoned properties.
Old Union Gin Road resident Jamie Bussell said he too works on old cars in his yard, but said he’d be glad to clean up his property if it meant the county government was working to make the county cleaner. Bussell said he lives next to a particularly blighted property and said he reluctantly tells persons visiting his home how to get to his home by saying he lives at the driveway beyond the “junkyard.” Bussell, who was the last person to speak on the matter, closed by saying he too supported having a code enforcement officer.
After more than a half-hour of discussion, commissioners took no further action on the matter.