Until recently, the Hamilton County Health and Safety Board could tell homeowners to clean up their junky, overgrown yards, but lacked the legal teeth to bite them if they didn't.
But on March 3, the County Commission gave the board new powers, allowing it to take property owners to Chancery Court. Board members said the changes will allow them to make progress on cases where owners ignore letters and fines.
"(It's) to make sure we have that arrow in our quiver so to speak," assistant county attorney David Norton said.
Board member Charles Wheaton hoped the threat of litigation would be enough to get property owners to clean up.
"Most people will come around if they think they're going to have to go to court," he said. "If they think there's nothing going to happen, why comply?"
Formed in 1999 to combat public nuisances in unincorporated areas, certain properties have been a thorn in the board's side. In August, public health officials informed commissioners that complaints about yard debris had doubled as county foreclosures increased in the sagging economy.
Mr. Norton said the board hasn't taken anyone to court under the new rules. But he said the board anticipates the need to use its new weapon or it wouldn't have asked the commission to expand its powers.
County Commissioner Richard Casavant said the rules will help.
"They just needed more authority to be able to accomplish what they're trying to do, and most people are pretty cooperative with them," he said. "This is for the exceptions."
For board member Patricia Henry, the changes equal progress.
"When we take our votes, sometimes we're sitting there and we feel like we're going nowhere," Mrs. Henry said. "We're just spinning our wheels. This will give us some leverage as far as making people clean up their messes."
The problem areas are all over the county, from East Brainerd to Soddy-Daisy, she said. Some residents who live near these properties turn them into unofficial junkyards, dumping their own mess into the already messy yards. In warmer weather, old tires and beat-up appliances are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and rodents, Mrs. Henry said.
The resolution about what constitutes health and safety hazards on property uses these definitions:
* Garbage: Animal and vegetable waste that can rot
* Litter: Garbage, refuse, rubbish and all other waste material, including tobacco products
* Refuse: All rotting and nonrotting solid waste
* Rubbish: Nonrotting, solid waste consisting of both combustible and noncombustible waste
Source: Hamilton County Health and Safety Board
Some board members describe their problem cases as "hoarders."
"Some people are just trashy, I guess," Mr. Wheaton said. "And that's the way they probably lived brought up ... In today's society, it's not kosher."
"They just collect junk," Mrs. Henry said. "I wouldn't want anyone living next door to me like that."
Mr. Wheaton noted the board previously has had some tools at its disposal. It could fine property owners $49.99 per day, but said the fines are difficult to enforce. Letters from the county don't do any good either, he said.
Board member John Harrison sympathized with people who would eventually go to court because of the new rules.
"It's a bad situation," Mr. Harrison said. "A lot of them are poor people, and they don't have money, even if you took them to court. We put as much pressure as we can to get them to do the things that needs to be done about their property."
He said taking the owners to court would be a waste of taxpayer money, but agreed it probably would get more of them to comply.