Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Johnson County Beautification Committee’s Nuisance Ordinance passes 

Stronger, clearer ordinance a victory for the committee

By Jordan McBride

The Johnson County Beatification Committee was created just over a year ago. One of the missions central in its initial charter was drafting a revised nuisance ordinance for the county. The previous nuisance ordinance was considered unclear and enforcement, which fell on the Sheriff’s Department, was difficult.

The Beautification Committee, which is led by Mike McMahan, worked to develop a fair ordinance that is clear and easy to enforce. They pushed for language that would keep the county accountable for timely processing of any served notices, laying out specific timelines for actions. McMahan attended many Johnson County Board meetings hashing out the specifics of the ordinance.

The committee also included Rick Nannie, Bobby Trover, Dolly Hopkins and Ron Duncan. Kaleb Faulker and Tyler Johnson, were student representatives from Vienna and Goreville respectively. Johnson also served as secretary for the committee. Jerry Jackson and Fred Heaton both made contributions as initial committee members, but had to resign before the year-spanning project was finished.

Johnson County Sheriff Pete Sopczak and State’s Attorney Tambra Cain were singled out by McMahan as essential partners in the development of the ordinance. “Pete provided a lot of insight into the scope of the issue and Tambra was critical to the actual drafting of what was ultimately considered and signed by the Commissioners. Without both of them, we would still be at it.” McMahan also acknowledged County Board Chairman Gary Brumley as instrumental in getting the proposal considered by the other commissioners.

The final ordinance is a much clearer document that does a better job of defining various nuisances as well as laying out the enforcement of nuisance violations. The document also shifts the responsibility for enforcement and investigation to the State’s Attorney’s office, a move that State’s Attorney Cain supports.

The document defines a variety of nuisances which fall broadly into general nuisances, weeds, and dangerous buildings. Each of these categories grant slightly different procedures for abatement, or removal/remediation, of the nuisance. Dangerous buildings, for example, allow for a longer period of time to correct than an overgrown lawn.

The new ordinance applies to the entirety of Johnson County, except within municipal limits. This means the new rules do not apply to the individual cities and villages, which largely have their own nuisance policies.

A new position, the Johnson County Ordinance Officer/State’s Attorney Investigator will refer documented nuisances to the State’s Attorney. The State’s Attorney, or another representative of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, will then serve a notice to the property owner or occupant regarding the nuisance. This Notice to Abate, or remove/correct the nuisance, will require the nuisance in question be addressed in no less than 30 days. If not corrected in this time period, the property owner or occupant can be fined, with the fine increasing with subsequent offenses if the nuisance is not corrected.

The first offense of failing to abate the nuisance by the time required on any category of nuisance will result in a fine of not less than $164. With the second offense, if the nuisance has not been abated the fine jumps an additional $100 to $264. For each offense following the second, fines of $500 may be assessed. If the nuisance is not abated within 30 days of being served a notice, the County Board of Commissioners may choose to abate the nuisance themselves at the expense of the owner or occupant of the property.

Owners or occupants of the property can appeal the notice at an open hearing of the Johnson County Board. The owner/occupant would simply contact the county clerk and request to be on the agenda. The county board has the authority to make a binding decision on the matter.

In the ordinance general nuisances fall into a few different categories, including: animal carcasses, manure, refuse, junk vehicles, junk mobile homes, noxious or offensive waste and stagnant water. The provision make some exceptions for the aforementioned materials if they are used in normal agricultural operations. Additionally, general nuisances include pollution or obstruction of any public body of water by industrial waste or other substances, and open wells, pits, or other holes not covered or secured from public use.

All abandoned refrigerators or iceboxes which cannot be opened from the inside by a young child are considered nuisances, as are any fire hazards. A more general category is “permit[ing] any condition or situation… that shall attract, harbor or encourage the infestation of rodents”. The ordinance also has a clause which encompasses other common law or State-defined nuisances.

Another category of nuisances defined in the ordinance is weeds. “Weeds, grasses or other underbrush… which have grown to a height of one foot or more or are allowed to flower”, are listed as nuisances. This category excludes trees, bushes, flowers and other ornamental plants.

For weeds, grasses, and other plants identified in the ordinance, a fee of no less than $250 will be assessed if the county has to address the nuisance themselves.

A final category of nuisance is defined as “dangerous buildings”. This category encompasses any building, shed, fence or other man-made structure which is considered dangerous to the public health. Any such structures that are at risk of imminent collapse or is a particular fire risk is also included. This category also encompasses buildings which are “available and frequented by malefactors or disorderly persons who are not lawful occupants of [the] structure.

The ordinance outright prohibits “dangerous buildings” in the county. Both permitting the existence as well as permitting the occupancy of such buildings are not allowed. The ordinance establishes that once served a notice regarding such a building, the issues with the structure leading to the nuisance violation must be remedied, or else the building must either be demolished or made inaccessible to occupants and owners within one week. The demolition or closing off of the structure still requires that the condition be remedied within a reasonable amount of the time and the occupants or owners must submit a written plan to the State’s Attorney’s office within ten days of the original notice.

If the abatement of the building cannot be made within 30 days, the owner or occupant can appeal to the Johnson County Board of Commissioners with their plan for abatement, and they may approve a longer period for abatement.

The county is required to serve the initial notice at least 60 days before applying to the Circuit Court for an order authorizing demolition of the structure.

Click here to read the full text of the ordinance.