Clean Up Junk Or Face Fines, Charges: New County Law Sweeps Away Clutter

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The Gila County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a new law of the land at its Dec. 6 meeting: Clean up your junk or face civil charges and fines.

With the passing of Resolution 05-12-01, the Gila County Planning and Zoning Department will operate under a set of civil procedures that gives the county more legal brawn to penalize zoning infractions and cluttered properties, beginning Jan. 6.

"Before, (the county) could only go criminal. Offenders could have served jail time for cluttered yards," Terry Smith, Gila County planning department manager said. "As a civil matter, we adopted a set of guidelines and we can collect fines."

The county, per state law, can charge private landholders from $100 to $700 a day, and up to $10,000 a day for businesses not in compliance.

"There are some folks who say, ‘My junk is my treasure,'" Smith said. "People get upset because they say we're messing with their rights. An eyesore is one thing, but a hazard is another."

Among the weeds and household garbage lurks debris, which in many instances, is unsafe.

"Junk can breed a lot of other things: rats, scorpions...." Smith said. "You name it, we can call it junk, whether it's a fire hazard, explosive hazard or unsafe buildings."

Joe Mendoza, director of community development, said cluttered land is particularly dangerous in northern Gila County.

"The properties we're talking about are fire hazards," Mendoza said. "Dry weeds ... it's dangerous."

The enforcement process begins with a signed complaint.

"A lot of times we see properties that are worse than others," said Mendoza. "But if someone doesn't complain about it, there's not much we can do."

Under the new civil guidelines, a compliance officer is dispatched to the site -- that person validates the complaint with a hearing officer, Smith said.

The property owner is then notified by mail and given 30 days to comply. If the request is ignored, a plea hearing is set. The county subsequently holds a civil hearing and imposes fines on the spot if the party is found responsible. Unpaid judgments are subject to property liens.

"They have the right to appeal if they are convicted," Smith said. "We're following Pinal County's process. They're getting properties cleaned up."

Brenda Lampert enforces Pinal County's junk ordinance -- adopted in 1962.

"It works great," said Lampert, hearing programs coordinator. "The success rate is good. (Property owners) don't want to pay the daily fines."

Lampert said Pinal County receives 30 to 60 new cases a month.

"This is mostly from having two mobile homes on one property; animals and unlicensed vehicles," Lampert said. "Some people say, ‘This is my property, I'll do what I want,' but they can't."

Lampert said in the past year, Pinal County has doubled collections from junk ordinance fines.

Smith is hopeful that Gila County can adopt Pinal's model and resolve the several hundred active complaints pending in unincorporated areas of the county.

"We don't do Gestapo tactics," Smith said. "We want to work with people and give them the opportunity to clean up."

Meanwhile, the county is working on programs to help residents -- especially those without physical or financial means -- to clear their properties.

Pay keeps the nurse away

Northern Gila County has limped along on borrowed county nurses from the south for the past 18 months -- that's how long the nursing position in Payson has been vacant.

And it's a matter of money.

David Fletcher, director of division health and community services for Gila County, presented a proposal to the supervisors to increase the starting pay for county nurse from $39,000 a year to the local market salary of a registered nurse.

"We're trying to get (the salary) raised to $45,000," Fletcher said. "We've interviewed six nurses and they've all turned us down because of the pay."

A nursing shortage, Fletcher said, compounds the problem.

"In Arizona, there are 1.9 nurses to every 1,000 people," Fletcher said.

County nurses are responsible for overseeing the general health of the community. They administer vaccinations, conduct health screenings, provide education and gather and track data on communicable diseases -- services available to all county residents regardless of income.

"(Nurses) do 80 percent of the workload," said Matt Bolinger, county epidemiologist. "They're actually the ones out there doing the work and providing education."

In spite of the vacancy, Fletcher and Bollinger said the quality of healthcare in northern Gila County has not been compromised.

"Is there any excess disease up there because of (the vacancy)? No," Bollinger said. "It hurts the Globe site because we lose staff that goes up (to Payson)."

Applicants interested in the nursing position can call David Fletcher at (928) 425-3231.

Diamond Star land rezoned

The Terra Star Valley 40 LLC, the development firm operated by G. Michael Horton, submitted a rezoning request, which the board passed 2 to 1.

Terry Smith, county planning department manager, said the company requested the rezoning of five lots -- from heavy commercial to residential -- to develop the land.

"A person can divide a piece of property into five lots and all they have to do is provide basic access," Smith said. "Six or more and you have to go through the county and create a public report."

Since the division of land falls under the state minimum, Terra Star Valley 40 LLC does not have to provide a public report, containing infrastructure information such as utilities, paved streets, gutter and water criteria, on the project.

"We can't require anything," Smith said. "If they wanted to put in a system with a holding pump, they could do that."

As of press time, Horton had not returned telephone calls.

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