Port Angeles looks to expand code enforcement through condemnation, resell

PORT ANGELES — A unanimous Port Angeles City Council has agreed to add a tool to the city’s toolbox for code enforcement: condemnation and resell.

The seven-member council Tuesday directed staff to use an existing state statute as a last resort to clean up blighted properties.

Assistant City Attorney Heidi Greenwood outlined a process by which the city could condemn a trash-infested house deemed to pose a health or safety risk and resell it.

“We have several properties in the city that are actually a blight on the neighborhood,” Greenwood told the council.

“We have done everything within our toolbox to try and deal with these properties.

“We have some owners who are digging in their feet and are either unable or unwilling to deal with these properties,” Greenwood added, “and we’re sort of running out of options.”

To meet the legal standard for a blighted property, two of the following must apply:

• The property has been unoccupied for more than one year.

• It is a threat to the public health, safety or welfare as defined by the city executive.

• It has been associated with illegal drug activity within the past year.

A property that meets the criteria would be subject to a City Council resolution condemning the property as a blight on the neighborhood.

A Clallam County Superior Court judge then would determine just compensation for the property owner.

The city would pay fair market value — most likely the assessed value minus cleanup costs — and acquire the title to the property, Greenwood said.

“We are allowed to add covenants, conditions and restrictions on that title, which can include a timeline for the rehabilitation of the property,” Greenwood said.

Community and Economic Development Director Nathan West emphasized that the neighborhood blight provision in the Revised Code of Washington would be used in “very rare circumstances.”

“We [would] have utilized a great deal of resources to try to gain compliance before we need to resort to some of the methods that Heidi’s talked about,” West told the council.

“But we very much have neighborhoods that are being impacted by some of these blighted homes.”

Greenwood displayed before-and-after photographs of a boarded-up, vermin-infested house in Auburn that was transformed after the city condemned it under the state statute.

“We can make this work,” she said.

Greenwood added that she had chosen one property in Port Angeles to be used as a “bit of a test case” with the council’s approval. She did not identify the property.

“It appears we have not only just a consensus, we have unanimity among the council for you to proceed,” Mayor Patrick Downie told Greenwood.

City Council members often hear complaints about code compliance on social media and in various meetings, Deputy Mayor Cherie Kidd said.

“We want a safe city, a clean city, a beautiful city, and we really need safe neighborhoods,” Kidd said.

“I encourage the council to add another tool to the toolbox.”

City Councilman Lee Whetham expressed concerns about costs to the city.

“I don’t want this to be used as a tool for a bunch of neighbors who don’t like a particular person’s tree that they happen to grow in their yard, or how they keep their yard,” Whetham added.

“It needs to be applied for the good of all of us, not just the few people.”

City Councilman Brad Collins predicted that the city would recover the costs of code enforcement.

“I think overall, as property values are safeguarded, the city, through its tax base, is going to make up the difference,” Collins said.

“We’re not going to be harmed by investing in removing blighted properties.”

Downie said there are “lots of good reasons” to use the state statute as a “last bullet in the holster.”

“I think this is wonderful,” City Councilwoman Sissi Bruch told staff.

“And I’d also encourage you to see what we can do about some of the downtown buildings that are vacant and empty.”

Said Greenwood: “The statute is not limited to residential property, so we’ll see where we go.”

The city’s code enforcement program was cut to a “bare minimum” during the recession in 2011, Greenwood said.

The 2017 city budget includes $500 for code enforcement, while the number of complaints has been growing, Greenwood said.

Meanwhile, Clallam County’s lone code enforcement officer has been working through a backlog of about 200 cases in unincorporated areas.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected] dailynews.com.

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