City tightens rules for ‘temporary’ dwellings

Friday, May 31, 2013 12:02 AM

Suddenly, an RV shows up in your neighbor’s backyard, and you think nothing of it. A week goes by, then a month and it is still there and someone is living in it. You start to wonder, “Who is that?”

It could be a neighbor hosting family members or helping out a friend in need. It could be a complete stranger — a friend of a friend who lives there — taking advantage of a quiet street.

Whoever it is, the Cortez city council wants to control long-term unauthorized housing situations by limiting them to 30 days and imposing a fine of up to $500 per day thereafter.

“When there is a stranger in the neighborhood it makes people uncomfortable, and when it’s an illegal dwelling this (ordinance) will give police and staff a more effective tool,” said city manager Shane Hale.

But the council also recognizes that people use RVs and camping trailers on their property to house visitors occasionally. To accommodate the inlaws coming to stay for the holidays, the city council is setting a the 30-day limit for their use over a calendar year.

The ordinance enforcement will be mostly complaint driven, Hale said, and the municipal judge will have discretion on the fine.

In tough economic times, illegal housing in backyards and alleys becomes more of an issue, said Cortez building inspector Sam Proffer.

“It is an ongoing problem that goes on in any city, and becomes a public safety issue and a nuisance for neighbors,” Proffer said. “Normally, we go and visit with the folks and tell them it is a violation of the code and they move on. It that doesn’t resolve it, then we have to give a notice to abate.”

Hale and the council believe that a more straightforward ticket and fine will be a more effective deterrent.

Currently, the city ordinance does not clearly describe who is the responsible party for allowing illegal housing situations, especially in rental situations. Is the property owner at fault, the renter, or the person camping in the yard?

“This makes it a simple offense, where now it is more of a zoning violation,” said city attorney Mike Green. “With this, the ticket can be written by police or city code enforcers to any of the players; it covers all angles.”

Illegal dwellings tend to start off simple, but evolve into a larger problem as the occupant becomes more comfortable. Soon extension cords extend to the main house, heaters are installed, garden hoses for water and sewer purposes are attached, and satellite TV dishes go up.

“When someone is living in your neighbor’s backyard for a year and starts building an add-on to a camp trailer, it is usually too much for people, and they complain to the city,” Proffer said.

By definition, RVs and camp trailers do not meet the minimum design standards and health and safety codes of the city, he said. When they become someone’s permanent home, people notice and want something done.

“It affects property values, can become a fire hazard with all of the additional wiring. It leads to a plethora of problems,” he said. “It’s a sanitation issue because there can be backflow of waste into the water system.”

City regulators are aware that people in hard times are desperate for housing, they said, but they must balance compassion with upholding city housing standards. Losing a job, an illness, a divorce, or getting out of jail can leave people suddenly homeless. Often they are invited by a compassionate friend or relative to live on their property.

“It is never a pleasant experience for anyone. But we don’t just kick them out. We give them notice and work to remedy the situation,” Proffer said.

For example, efforts are made to determine whether people living in non-permitted residences qualify for public housing assistance, and other social programs to help them get back on their feet.

And there are other, legal add-on opportunities.

“In one case we are working to resolve a situation by drawing up plans for building a permitted addition onto a home in order to get an individual out of a camp trailer in the yard,” Proffer said. “We try and find a solution.”

The proposed ordinance will have a second reading and public hearing at the next board meeting June 11.