Commissioner Shannon Whitfield adopts 'clean and lean' ordinance that lets Walker County tear down public nuisances

An overgrown, abandoned mobile home is seen at the Pear Pines Mobile Home Park on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in LaFayette, Ga.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. - Walker County code enforcement workers will now be able to tear down old and run-down buildings.

Commissioner Shannon Whitfield signed an ordinance change, creating laws that give the county authority to destroy buildings that are a public nuisance. Whitfield said blight was the biggest concern among residents during his listening tour of community meetings throughout the county last month.

photo Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitefield speaks to citizens gathered at the Walker County/LaFayette Public Library. Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield held a public hearing on a proposed tax increase at the Walker County/LaFayette Public Library on August 17, 2017.

"They are not only an eyesore, but they are also a safety concern in our community," Whitfield said of blighted buildings. "And they are also devaluing people's property."

The county has several definitions for what makes a building a public nuisance. They include properties that are unfit for human habitation because of inadequate light, ventilation, air or open spaces. They also include abandoned buildings, faded or chipped paint, broken windows, missing siding and scraps of wood covering the doors and windows.

The county can also declare a building a public nuisance if it's the location of repeated crimes - though the local government has to give the property owner written notice first.

If county code enforcement officers determine a property is a public nuisance, they can file a complaint in magistrate court. A judge will schedule a hearing within 15-45 days. If judges agree with the county after hearing the evidence, they will issue orders based on how badly the properties are damaged.

If fixing the property will cost less than 50 percent of its assessed value, the judge will order the owner to bring the problems up to code. If fixing the property will cost more than 50 percent of the assessed value, the judge will order the owner to tear down the structure.

The ordinance specifically instructs a judge not to consider a property owner's income or financial status. If the property owner doesn't fix the building's problems within 270 days of the judge's order, county workers can tear down the structure.

Some residents objected to the ordinance during a public hearing Thursday night. During the public comment period, Gary Williams read several sections of the proposed law change and argued the ordinance was too vague. He believed it will create government overreach affecting people's private property.

"Anybody can nitpick this thing to death," he said. "I disagree with it, and I hope you don't sign it. I hope you value your signature."

After the meeting, Williams returned to the lectern and asked attendees who disagreed with the ordinance to raise their hands. About 12 people responded. He then gave a sheet of paper with his name and phone number to Whitfield. He asked residents who were against the new law to contact the commissioner's office and get his information.

"I tried to stop it," he said.

Janice Williams argued the county needs to amend another section of the ordinance that allows the county to issue a $500 fine the first time a property is out of compliance with code.

"You are taxing our county into poverty," she said.

County spokesman Joe Legge said that section of the ordinance pre-dates the Whitfield administration, and as a matter of practice code enforcement officers issue warnings before any fines. He added that he has not seen fines greater than $50.

David Roden, the owner of the Mountain View Estates manufactured home community in Rossville, has pushed for stricter codes for three years. Roden formed a community - the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group - aimed at abolishing blight. He has argued eliminating eyesores will raise the standard of living on the north end of the county.

"We have had a problem in our county with blight," he said. "If you come through the gateway from Chattanooga and through Rossville, I don't know that any of us can argue that we have some issues."

Whitfield also held public hearings on other ordinance changes. He has proposed banning all abandoned vehicles from people's yards. The current ordinance allows homeowners to keep two abandoned vehicles. Whitfield said his advisers on the Vision 2030 Advance Team will review the ordinance and recommend some other changes. They have not announced what those might be.

He also held a public hearing on an 8 percent hotel-motel tax. Some residents who run short-term vacation rentals and other lodging operations objected to the concept. At Whitfield's request, state Sen. Jeff Mullis pushed the tax through as a local act last year.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.