City eyes more ways to fight blight


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Elizabeth City officials are looking at ways to further crack down on blight, following city councilors calling for stepped-up enforcement last week.

During the Oct. 9 council meeting, Community Development Director Matthew Schelly reported on the activities of the city's two “code enforcement officers.” Those officers write citations against unsightly properties that reduce the attractiveness of a neighborhood and may even create health and safety risks.

The two code enforcement officers have written almost 400 citations in the last three months, Schelly reported. He detailed that they've written 256 citations against excessive “weeds, grass and other debris,” plus dozens of citations related to junk and trash, including junked vehicles. They also wrote a few citations for many other less common offenses, including “playing or leaving game equipment in the streets,” dead trees or tree limbs, parking in prohibited areas and even “noisy poultry.”

Schelly also reported that more than half of the citations the code enforcement officers, Lisa Rich and Antonio Williams, issued were for violations they found themselves. The rest came from citizen complaints – showing the officers were being proactive, Schelly explained.

Schelly also asked the council what further steps code enforcement could take to reduce blight.

A lot, according to Second Ward City Councilors Tony Stimatz and Anita Hummer.

“I asked this be put on [the agenda]; this is not what I was looking for,” Stimatz said. “What is our strategy? What are our priorities?”

Stimatz said it remains “frustrating” to him that some code violations have been ignored for years, citing a tree that blocks visibility at the intersection of Selden and Church as an example. There are also many properties in the city without clearly visible address numbers, he said. Without those numbers, he said, it may be harder for first responders to find properties where emergencies are happening, he said.

Though acknowledging Schelly had suggested additional steps the city could take, Stimatz called for city staff to take initiative and recommend the best ones to pursue.

Hummer agreed that more needed to be done – even if it required hiring more code enforcement officers or other personnel.

“Definitely code enforcement is the hottest issue in the Second Ward,” she said. “People should not have to live next to some of the things that they have to live next door to.”

First Ward Councilor Ray Donnelly agreed, asking Schelly to present a new strategy and goals to the next city council.

Third Ward Councilor Michael Brooks agreed the city needed to hire more code enforcement officers, noting the two officers were responsible for not only writing citations, but handling all the paperwork that comes with them.

“They definitely need at least two more people,” Brooks said.

In an interview after the meeting, Schelly said the creation of the “community development” department, which merged code enforcement, planning and other functions, has helped free up staff to handle the administrative follow-up that comes with writing citations. When a property owner doesn't cooperate at all with the city, it can take months to fix a violation, he explained.

Schelly also declined to say what the city's new priorities or additional actions should be, reiterating those will be determined once a new strategy is put together.

Also interviewed after the meeting, City Manager Rich Olson said one priority should be getting street addresses on more buildings throughout the city, given that helps first responders quickly get to emergency scenes.