New county ordinance to require inspection before property sale

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It’s aimed at helping to clean up property in Switzerland County, but a new ordinance that has been approved by the county commissioners and the town councils of both Patriot and Vevay has some residents up in arms.

The issue stems from the passage of two recent ordinances: the “Building Maintenance Ordinance” and the “Unsafe Building Ordinance”. In those ordinances, county officials worked to make sure that property in the county is cleaned up and not left as dumping areas – which causes property values to go down all over the county.

The ordinances spell out various violations that a property owner can have; and it also tells about the authority of the county’s building inspector for Planning and Zoning – a post currently held by Mark Archer – and the fines and penalties that can be levied on the property owner.

But the real issue here stems from Section 107.5 of “Title 4: Property Standards; Article 2: Property Maintenance and New Construction Standards Sub Code”.

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That section, titled “Transfer of Ownership”, reads:

It shall be unlawful for the owner of any dwelling unit, structure, or premises who has received a compliance order or upon whom a notice of violation has been served to sell, transfer, mortgage, lease or otherwise dispose of such dwelling unit or structure to another until the provisions of the compliance order or notice of violation have been complied with, or until such owner shall first furnish the grantee, transferee, mortgagee or lessee a true copy of any compliance order or notice of violation issued by the code official and shall furnish to the code official a signed and notarized statement from the grantee, transferee, mortgagee or lessee, acknowledging the receipt of such compliance order or notice of violation and fully accepting the responsibility without condition for making the corrections or repairs required by such compliance order or notice of violation.

This means that any property that has been cited by the building inspector cannot be sold or the title transferred until the specifics of the policy are met.

The ordinance also provides for the building inspector to approve any property in the county prior to the transfer of that property being finalized, in order to make sure that the property meets the standards set forth in the ordinance.

This is where some members of the community are upset, because many feel that it is not the business of the county to approve or disapprove of the sale of private property.

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“This is all still a work in progress,” Mark Archer said this week. “The ordinance has been passed by the commissioners, the town of Patriot, and the town of Vevay. Basically you can’t transfer property until it’s inspected.”

But Mark Archer said that there is no intent in the ordinance for him to do a full inspection of anyone’s property, and that confusion is leading to anger for some residents.

“Basically it’s a clean up issue,” Mark Archer said. “If there’s garbage in the yard. If there are gutters down or windows broken or a leaning porch, then we’re going to talk to the property owner about things like that. I don’t think there’s any intent on going in people’s houses and doing a full blown inspection. There are private inspectors that they can hire to do that.”

Mark Archer said that the ordinance won’t be in effect for another six months; and that the entire matter started four years ago when the Area Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals wanted to do something to deal with the blight in the county.

In the process of dealing with ways to make property owners clean up their land, Mark Archer said that the boards decided to write a new comprehensive plan to take the place of the last one, which was adopted in 1996.

“Those should be updated at least every 10 years,” Mark Archer said.

In dealing with the issue of blight, a three members steering committee made up of Fred Stave, John Kniola, and Brian McAllister was appointed, and that group sought the help of Dr. Frankel from Ball State University, according to Mark Archer.

In the process, three of six issues have now been completed.

The new comprehensive plan was adopted in early 2009; and the Building Maintenance Ordinance and the Unsafe Building Ordinance have both been passed within the past couple of months.

Still left to be done is the adoption of the new Zoning ordinance; the Subdivision Control ordinance; and the Fees and Administrative Procedures ordinance.

As for the issue of the inspection, Mark Archer said that the way the ordinance is written, a property owner will not be able to complete a title transfer until the property is inspected by the county – but he also sees that there are issues that are going to have to be worked out.

“I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal in terms of getting property transferred,” Mark Archer said. “Now if you’ve got a bunch of junk on your property, that’s probably not going to work.”

Mark Archer said that the next step in the process will be for the County Commissioners to appoint a three member board, which will act as an appeals board in the event that there is a complaint filed by a landowner who has been cited by the building inspector.

He said that he expects the commissioners are either going to advertise in the paper for candidates; or accept names of potential board members from the community at large.

Mark Archer said that when his office is notified that a property transfer is going on, he will, as part of the process, go out to do an inspection and document what he sees in terms of violations of the ordinance. He will then meet with the property owner and try and remedy the problems, and if the property owner doesn’t agree and refuses to fix the problems, they could face fines – perhaps as high as $100 per day – until the matters are fixed.

“That’s another reason that we went this way,” Mark Archer said. “Thinking it would be better because the old ordinance had no teeth in it in terms of trying to get someone to clean something up. It was in the state book, but it wasn’t in the county book; so there wasn’t much we could do. This allows us to have a means to get property owners to clean things up, which benefits everyone.”

Still, Mark Archer isn’t wanting to implement this new ordinance until the rest of the zoning is completed, noting that issues such as minimum lot size for building a home will be raised along with other matters.

He said that the Area Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals normally meet on the third Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. in the commissioner’s meeting room in the basement of the courthouse. He also noted that sometimes the groups do not meet if there is nothing on the agenda, and that cancellation is noted on the door of the courthouse. The next scheduled meeting is February 17th.

The next meeting of the Switzerland County Commissioners will be held this Monday, February 1st, in the basement of the courthouse.

“Again, all of this is still a work in progress,” Mark Archer said. “It is aimed at getting people to clean up blight on their property, and that will be better for everyone.”