The Payson Council Thursday voted unanimously to make it a felony to repeatedly violate some town building codes, overruling the concerns of some citizens.
Currently, town officials have to give a 15-day warning before issuing a civil citation for violating provisions of the Uniform Development Code, which covers things like signs, the colors of buildings, landscaping and other town rules.
The new ordinance would enable code enforcement officials to issue a civil citation on the spot. If someone violated the same ordinance again within two years, the code enforcement officer could ask the town attorney to file criminal charges.
"This is a dangerous proposal," said Planning Commissioner Gary Bedsworth, during the public comment portion of the public hearing on the first reading of the ordinance. He said putting the weight of criminal charges behind enforcement of the 200-page UDC could invite abuse and political manipulation.
"It's fraught with the potential for misuse and misunderstanding," said Bedsworth.
Mayor Kenny Evans replied that "we have looked at that, and had some level of concern. Before the second reading (of the ordinance), we'll take that into consideration."
The plan to toughen enforcement of town codes stemmed initially from an incident in which the owner of a Star Valley topless bar parked a truck with a large sign advertising the business on a busy intersection on the Beeline Highway over a holiday weekend. Warned once that the truck violated Payson's town ordinance, the owner reportedly parked the truck at a different spot on a subsequent weekend. The incident spurred complaints to the council and ultimately the building code crackdown.
The proposal to add possible criminal charges to code enforcement had provoked a sharp discussion at the planning commission, where several commissioners worried about the possible abuse of power by town officials and said people shouldn't face criminal charges for things like cutting down trees on their own property or putting up an ugly sign.
In response to those concerns, the town attorney added to the proposed ordinance a provision that the town could only consider criminal charges in the case of flagrant violations that involved "health, safety or property damage" or that "violated the overall intention of the code."
Town Attorney Sam Streichman said the inclusion of the concept of "de minimis" to judge whether anyone should face criminal violations would ensure the new enforcement provisions "can't be used for a bullying sort of situation."
Evans explained that the "de minimis" concept means that criminal charges could only be sought in the case of repeated, flagrant violations of the code.
Bedsworth said the proposal goes too far. He noted that the town has been repeatedly criticized already by the business community for being hard to work with. Toughening the enforcement provisions "demonstrates how truly unfriendly we can be to the business community," he said.