City copes with cleanup: Makes plan for nuisance property cleanup
The Wadena City Council indicated that the next steps in tornado recovery will involve nuisance ordinance enforcement.
"We've been dealing with a public health issue now," Police Chief Bruce Uselman said. "Garbage piles, raw garbage, that sort of thing."
While most tornado-affected property owners have cleaned up in a timely manner, a handful of houses have been abandoned with potentially dangerous -- or at least smelly -- waste left in the open, city officials said. For example, cleanup crews contacted a person living in Colorado concerning an abandoned Harmony Lane house because his parents, the homeowners, are currently living in a nursing home.
The council wrestled with property rights versus getting the problem fixed. The garbage bags are on private property, but some argued the issue crosses a line and becomes a public health hazard -- especially when the homeowners are not around to actually occupy the house.
City Attorney Jeff Pederson proposed sending a letter to homeowners with clear time frames and expectations. He presented a rough draft of the letter to council members to review.
"Cleanup is the responsibility of each property owner," Pederson said, reading from the letter. "The city is aware that insurance issues and other issues are affecting the ability of property owners to immediately take necessary action on their property."
Mayor Wayne Wolden suggested that a letter be sent via certified mail, telling residents that cleanup needs to be "completed," not just "arranged," within a specific time frame.
Pederson said "arranged" was used in his rough draft of the letter because homeowners may not be able to fix the situation in a only a few weeks.
Council member Don Niles added that the letter should have a specific date deadline to avoid confusion if letters sit on piles of mail rather than being opened immediately.
Since only 6-12 properties out of more than 200 damaged buildings are considered a public nuisance, Pederson indicated that it would not be hard to make the contacts.
"People haven't just disappeared," he said.
Pederson added that people who have issues complicating their ability to clean up within the time frame should contact city officials.
"The idea is to give [property owners] some kind of time frame," he said.
If homeowners do not voluntarily comply, he added, the city may have to resort to legal action.
"The state has laws that allow us to deal with excavations that are unfinished," Pederson said. "There's the garbage house statute, and that does fall under public health."
Additionally, there is the hazardous building statute and the catch-all public nuisance ordinance. He said he was not going to go into the exact procedures, but they did have the tools to move forward.
On the other hand, the city has to work within restrictions, the city attorney said.
"The tornado aftermath ... does not take away private property rights," Pederson said.
Only imminent danger or an administrative warrant can interfere with these rights, he said. Officials will need to analyze properties on a case-by-case basis to determine which waste situations pose an imminent danger.
Pederson said property owners are still in the process of recovering from the tornado and are entitled to the legal due process as part of that.
Planning and Zoning Director Byron Larson updated the council on houses that are coming down due to storm damage.
"To date we've written 35 demolition permits, most of which are whole houses," Larson said.
Public Works Director Ron Bucholz told the council that the cemetery as well as some private residences require debris cleanup. Stumps from private property have ended up in public alleys. He confirmed the existence of the abandoned garbage issue and acknowledged that some homeowners are waiting for their contractors to fix problem areas.
City Administrator Brad Swenson said the cemetery and other property still has building debris and displaced furniture -- not just branches and trees.
Water and Light Supervisor Dave Evans said his crew has been dealing with issues about trees and responding to calls about branches broken near power lines. He told the council that on Monday, Detroit Lakes will send equipment to help with electrical issues.
Economic Development Director and Fire Chief Dean Uselman said his department has been "keeping tabs on what's happening at the school" and using appropriate measures of caution while removing contents from the area. They have a structural engineer to regularly update them on the safety of the school building as they continue that process.
Wolden said he was most concerned about debris being hazardous.
"Kids climbing on [debris], jumping on it, getting nails through their feet. That's a public safety hazard," he said. "It's a hazard, it's a nuisance, it needs to be dealt with."
The council discussed bringing in private contractors for tree trimming where branches pose a hazard, tree stump grinding and tree removal. Before they do that, Swenson proposed a bus tour for the city council to analyze the debris. The council scheduled a special meeting for Wednesday, July 21.