Trash or Treasure? Junk Ordinances Stir Debate

04/30/12 7:34AM By Charlotte Albright

Now that the snow has melted and grass is sprouting, a lot of homeowners are cleaning up their yards. But some aren't.

That's why many towns are passing or enforcing so-called junk ordinances. They can carry hefty fines for discarded cars, furniture, or debris that can be seen from the road or adjoining properties.  The owner may defend the right to be a pack rat. For some, it's long been sort of a bank account. They can sell scrap when they need cash. But a selectman, zoning officer, or neighbor might take a different view-especially if that neighbor's house is for sale.

Sten Lium, a lawyer and selectman in Concord, sees trash where some might see treasure. "I mean all this stuff piles up and it's really junk. Someone's either too lazy to get rid of it or organize it and, yeah, it does affect the marketability of your house," he says.

Lium says the Northeast Kingdom town's year-old junk ordinance grew from concerns voiced at public meetings about the effect unsightly properties were having on other property values.

Like many other towns, Concord adopted its ordinance from a template offered by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.  But it rubbed Concord resident Jay Bona the wrong way.

"What really bothered me," he says, "is that it seemed like it was going to pin neighbor against neighbor and also it brought up the question of, ‘What is junk?'"

The model ordinance defines junk as "old or discarded" metal. It lists everything from household appliances and furniture to plumbing fixtures and cars and car parts. That cuts a pretty broad swath through a lot of rural yards.  Bona says some Concord residents started getting warnings even before the ordinance took effect. He didn't think that was fair.

"But I also thought it was more fair than having an ordinance that asked somebody to be fined " he says.

Bona says not everyone can afford hundred-dollar-a-day fines. He keeps a tidy yard but says there are a few Concord residents who fear violating the ordinance, or are openly defying it. None wanted to be interviewed for this story.

Towns can sue property owners who refuse to clean up after getting a warning letter. John Haverstock, Town Manager in Pittsford, says such legal action is not a step to be taken lightly, but it could be brewing there against a resident he did not name.

"We have had some input from an aspiring attorney, someone training in the law, that he particularly feels that there is enough ambiguity and subjectivity in our ordinance that may make it the subject of a potentially future challenge if we were to seek to enforce it against this particular person," Haverstock says.

But most residents, he says, have complied without much fuss.

Lyndon Municipal Administrator Dan Hill agrees that the junk ordinance usually works pretty well as a deterrent. But he says tolerance for visible debris is growing thin. Hill supports the ordinance, and drives around with the town zoning administrator to enforce it. But he wishes that neighbors would just amicably hash some of this stuff out.

"One-on-one communication is just dying and because of that, what I would consider a civil issue between neighbors ends in our lap just because they do not want to talk to their neighbor."

So towns use the ordinance, instead. The League of Cities and Towns doesn't keep track of how many towns have adopted the law, but Hill says he's heard from fellow town managers that many have.

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