Code Compliance: Difficulties and Ideas for Small Towns

Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

by Kyle Slaughter, Salt Lake City, Utah

The Enforcement Issue

Although this article is directed to small-town leaders, the principles inherent in code enforcement strategies can benefit leaders, planners, and code enforcement officers in any community.

Small towns face enormous hurdles in enforcing code. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; after all, in the small communities that boast the best sense of community in America, it isn’t very popular to tell people who have been your family’s neighbors stretching back three generations (and who are almost always related to you), to clean-up their tire pile, get their old trucks off the street, or cut down their dying tree.

The difficulty is compounded by the lack of barriers between elected officials and the public—in small towns, everyone is considered a neighbor. Everyone knows everything about everyone else. Additionally, many small towns don’t have a single full-time employee or staffer, much less someone with an understanding of the town code or code enforcement practices. As a result, over-worked elected officials with full-time jobs have to squeeze enforcement and compliance activities in between soccer practice, choir, and spending a few precious moments with their children.

While uncomfortable in any setting, the issues related to small town code enforcement are not as prevalent in larger cities. In these communities, full-time officers and others are hired with the sole objective of investigating code infractions and enforcing compliance. This highlights the importance of small towns having strategies that work for their unique situation.

Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

So, Why Enforce?

The difficulties listed above beg a very important question: “If enforcement is so hard why should small towns (or anyone for that matter) bother enforcing code at all?” It’s a fair question. The answer lies in the fundamental elements of community vision and planning to become the community its leaders and residents have always wanted.

Without a municipal code, and subsequent code enforcement and compliance measures, the general plan lacks the teeth required to attain the community’s vision. Code enforcement is part of the equation that transforms a town from a politically designated area into the ideal community.1

Rural community vision statements often declare the importance of maintaining their rural atmosphere while remaining family friendly, economically healthy, and safe. Codes help realize each of these goals through:

Code compliance is recognized as a key component of fighting public health threats like Zika virus by reducing standing water from old tires or broken down vehicles to eliminate breeding habitat for mosquitos and other disease carrying pests.
  1. Improved land values
  2. Decreased numbers of attractive nuisances (attractive nuisances are objects that are hazardous and likely to attract children. Landowners have a responsibility to remove or adequately fence/protect the hazard to protect children from potential injuries)
  3. Improved safety
  4. Increased sense of community
  5. Improved public image
  6. Improved quality of life
  7. Reduced health threats
  8. Increased likelihood of economic development

It takes more than one of these benefits to convince leaders to start enforcing their code, and in some cases philosophical understandings of property rights have to be addressed before enforcement measures will even be considered. Still, with the right approach, leadership can find ways to create an enforcement program that satisfies both the community and the neighbors.

Strategies that Work for Small Towns

So, what are small towns to do? Not everything. Taking too big a step in the beginning will certainly kill enforcement efforts in towns where little or no enforcement has ever taken place; some community members will claim too much government oversight or the mayor or council member in charge will run out of time and energy for the project.

A measured approach that builds capacity as it increases enforcement measures is more likely to succeed.

We have three general recommendations, and then list several specific options for community leaders as they set up their community’s code enforcement program.

  1. Have a positive view. Paint your enforcement measures in a positive light by focusing on compliance (rather than incompliance) and the benefits community members receive as they come into compliance and help their neighbors comply as well.
  2. Involve the community. Make enforcement a community effort through strategies that incorporate the entire community where possible. Community clean-up days, assistance programs for the elderly, and even small revolving loan funds can be started to involve large portions of the community.
  3. Take a measured approach. Don’t go too deep too fast. Community members and leaders will need to take their time feeling out how enforcement can and should happen within the community. Taking small, incremental steps that slowly grow the community enforcement program to the right size will ensure the community can handle more difficult enforcement questions in the future.
Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

Steps to Good Enforcement

Leaders should consider three primary steps to good code enforcement within their community:

  1. Start at the plan
  2. Make sure you have “good” code
  3. Establish an enforcement program

Start at the plan

Starting at the plan means evaluating the guidance and direction your general plan provides. Does your general plan accurately represent your community’s long-term goals? Does the zoning map accurately represent the zones within the community?

Ensuring the general plan is an accurate, adequate representation of community goals and vision will guarantee that the code is enforced with an end in mind. 

Make sure you have “good” code

Codes need to comply with state laws and should be a representation of the goals and vision laid out in the general plan. The code should expand on goals found in general plan and get into the “nitty-gritty” details of the town. To prevent codes from becoming irrelevant and unmanageable, remember that codes should support the general plan. If a particular code does not, it might need to be reevaluated.  Small towns should consider simplifying their code as well—if no one within the community can actually understand or interpret the code, it’s a pretty good indicator that there is an opportunity for simplification.

Establish an enforcement (or compliance) program

Code too complicated for the leadership to understand is more burden than blessing; it can make planning commissions and city councils ineffective at implementing community goals at best and get the city tied up in legal battles at worst.

The final step is establishing an effective enforcement program. An enforcement program is the community’s plan for bringing community members into compliance through incentives and/or punishments. A good enforcement program clearly establishes how the community will identify code violations and bring about compliance. An effective enforcement program educates and prepares residents for enforcement, and should encourage their participation.

This program should also be viewed through the “general plan lens.” i.e. Local leaders should ask how the enforcement program matches the character of the community as laid out in the general plan and shouldfocus the program on the codes most pertinent to community goals.

There are a multitude of questions communities will face and have to answer as they set up enforcement programs. These questions have to be answered at the community level, taking into account unique local factors.  Communities that have not been enforcing code can use the recommendations below as guideposts to establish an enforcement program tailored to their specific needs.

Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

Capacity

Capacity is the number of people who spend part of their time working on town or city business. Capacity is key to successful enforcement initiatives. New capacity does not always have to be paid, though. Volunteers, particularly youth and retirees, offer skills and energy that can move an enforcement program from paper to action.

Capacity is always difficult for small towns. Everyone who works (or volunteer as leaders) for small towns wear multiple hats. Determining who will actually implement the enforcement program is as important as the actual enforcement measures. Leaders should get creative as they consider who can participate in the enforcement program and what unique assets each person brings to the enforcement and compliance effort. The following groups can assist in the enforcement program:

Frequency

Enforcement should be conducted when there are violations (whether identified by citizens or community officials). Citizens don’t always know what constitutes a violation or don’t want to report their neighbor’s violations, and city officials rarely know everything that occurs in their community. For these reasons, community inspections help to inform enforcement needs, and are an essential element to actually bringing the entire community into compliance.

Consistency is the most important aspect of enforcement over time. Available personnel and capital and the severity of code violations within a community are key considerations for developing an enforcement timeline. Based on these factors, communities can create a compliance plan that incorporates specific enforcement strategies such as who will carry out these strategies and how frequently enforcement patrols or surveys will take place. Ensure your city has the manpower and budget to enact their compliance plan and timeline before adopting it.

Sample enforcement plan

Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

Photo provided by Kyle Slaughter.

This sample enforcement plan focuses on two community clean-up days; the clean-ups are community-wide and require assistance from public works. Most enforcement programs in very small towns should be brief, simple, and ensure that they do not over-extend the town’s enforcement ability. In this example, any empowered group could implement the enforcement program.

  • Plan & Code Audit. Every five years, the planning commission will audit the general plan and code, ensuring the plan still matches community goals and that the code serves to accomplish the goals in the general plan (if doubts about the plan exist, a request can be made for the town council to consider a re-write).
  • Public Meeting. Each March, the mayor and city council will host a public meeting in which they will briefly explain the code’s requirements, the reasons for the code, and how code is enforced within the city, including advertising the upcoming community clean-up. Refreshments should be provided.
  • Compliance Training. Following the public meeting, the code enforcers (consisting of one council member, public works employee, and the city recorder) will be retrained on city code and proper code violation notification and enforcement procedures.
  • Community Clean-Up Day. A semi-annual Community Clean-Up Day will occur in the first two weeks of April and November. One free pass to the local landfill will be provided to each residence (large trailers could be used when landfills are not available).
  • Community Compliance Patrol. During the two weeks following the clean-up day, city officials will patrol the community, providing notice to property owners of violations.†
  • Complaint Response. During the rest of the year, the city will respond to citizen complaints via the city website’s code violation referral page.

In Sum

Leaders in every community face difficulties enforcing code. Taking a measured approach to enforcement that places the general plan first will help communities overcome the negative stereotypes of code enforcement.  This approach will also help small towns in particular develop programs that can be implemented even with limited staff and time. Communities can develop enforcement programs that match their culture, resource capacity, timelines, and use code enforcement as a tool in reaching their community vision.




About the Rural Planning Group

Created in late 2013, the Rural Planning Group (RPG) is a creation of the State of Utah’s Community Impact Fund Board (CIB). The CIB obtains funding from mineral lease royalties on extractive industries operating on federal lands. These funds are collected by the federal government and then returned to the state, the State returns a portion to CIB for use in rural communities. The CIB disburses this funding to communities that are affected by mineral resource development on federal lands. RPG enhances the use of these funds by promoting planning and management best practices in rural communities. RPG accomplishes this through providing planning assistance for Utah’s rural communities, facilitating communication and coordination between key stakeholders, offering planning and technical assistance, and developing and delivering training, tools, and resources. By implementing these services, RPG provides rural communities with tools needed to build the futures they desire individually and to prepare for the future as a whole. Visit http://ruralplanning.org/


Kyle Slaughter is a Consultant with Utah's Rural Planning Group, a program of Utah Housing and Community Development, part of the Utah Department of Workforce Services. While he's consulted towns in rural Utah for three years, Kyle background is in public administration and private sector consulting. Adept at adapting technical concepts for general audiences, he's drafted studies and guides on small town code enforcement, airport zoning, annexation, and the coal and oil industries in Utah, presenting at professional and technical conferences in and outside of Utah on these and other topics. He holds an Masters in Public Administration from Brigham Young University and plans to open a buffalo ranch in the western U.S.


Appendix

  1.  Daniels et al. “The Small Town Planning Handbook Third Edition.” American Planning Association Planners Press. Chicago, IL. 2007. [KS1] 
  2. Bracco, Frank. “An Incremental Approach to Improving Code Enforcement and Compliance in Clayton County, GA.” Carl Vinson Institute of Government. 2010.
  3. Ibid.
  4. City Auditor’s Office. “Performance Audit Neighborhood Preservation Division.” City of Auditor’s Office of the City of Kansas City, MO. September 2012. 
  5. Bracco, Frank. “An Incremental Approach to Improving Code Enforcement and Compliance in Clayton County, GA.” Carl Vinson Institute of Government. 2010.

Published March 2017

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