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County speeds process, penalties for nuisance properties

By Tim Croft
The Star

The discussion was first taken up just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic as other issues pushed to the front of the line. 

During its regular monthly meeting Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners returned to cleaning up nuisance properties with an ordinance that would condense the process and add a change in how penalties will be collected. 

“It is extremely important we get this to get some of these properties cleaned up,” said Administrator Michael Hammond.  

“This will speed up the process and this will give some teeth.” 

Commissioners discussed in February steps to be taken to clean up properties deemed an “imminent” threat to public health and safety. 

At the time, the discussion focused on several properties in Districts 1 and 5. 

However, commissioners acknowledged it was a county-wide issue as the community tried to recover from Hurricane Michael. 

The city of Port St. Joe faces similar issues. 

The new county ordinance, called the Nuisance Property Abatement ordinance, would establish the county as a special taxing district. 

That would permit code enforcement to be more proactive in identifying nuisance properties and citing those property owners in non-compliance. 

The property owner would be notified via the Clerk of Courts of the violations, a period for appeal and required cures as well as a timeline for addressing the nuisance areas. 

If not abated within a specified period, the county would clean the property and attach a non-ad valorem tax lien on the property. 

This is the point of significant change with the new ordinance. 

In the past, the county often had difficulty recouping the costs of a property clean-up because a lien on the property “muddied” the title. 

In addition, the county had to wait for the property to be sold to collect any dollars. 

There were also cases, Hammond said, where the property wasn’t valued at a level equal to the cost of cleaning it up.  

“This expedites it,” Hammond said of the new ordinance. 

The new ordinance would place the nuisance abatement tax, if not satisfied, on the property owner’s Truth In Millage (TRIM) notice property tax bill the following year. 

If not paid with the property tax bill, the county could force a tax certificate sale to recoup the costs of abatement. 

“(The ordinance) is a vehicle we can use to go out and clean the property and place a lien on the property,” said attorney Jeremy Novak.  

“It is a considerable change in code enforcement in the county. This changes the process.” 

In short, the new ordinance eliminates what was a months-long slog that involved referring violations to a special master for a hearing and a subsequent appeals process. 

“I think it is a long time coming,” said Commissioner Phil McCroan. “It’s a good step forward.” 

Novak said the ordinance contains a series of definitions of nuisance properties ranging from excessive growth of grass or weeds to accumulations of rubbish and trash to conditions conducive to attracting animals or mosquitoes. 

The aim, he added, was to protect public health and safety as spelled out in the ordinance. 

“If we want to get our county looking nice … it’s only fair to people who want to keep their property clean and nice,” said Commissioner Ward McDaniel. 

Tuesday’s meeting had been advertised as the first public reading of the ordinance. 

Commissioners will take up a second reading and adoption at their September monthly meeting. 

No wake zone ordinance 

Commissioners also approved establishing no wake zones in several areas, including the boat ramps at Highland View and Overstreet as well as in locations where local fish houses operate. 

Commissioners approved the ordinance after hearing a number of complaints from residents and businesses in the specified areas about boats running at excessive speeds.