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Livability code should benefit from alterations

March 31, 2006

Taken aback by citizen opposition, the Washington County Commissioners will likely drop a section of a proposed code dealing with the appearance of owner-occupied homes.

It's a good move, but one the staff proposing the updated Livability Code should have anticipated, since there is no similar section in the state code.

In his Tuesday presentation to the commissioners, Permits and Inspection Director Daniel DiVito said that the code hadn't been updated since it was passed here in 1988.

DiVito said state law required that local governments either adopt a code that meets state regulation or agree to use the state's own code. As proposed, he said, the new code would meet state standards.

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And more, apparently. After more than a dozen citizens showed up to protest the idea that county government could fine them up to $500 a day based on the appearance of their homes, County Attorney Richard Douglas said that section would probably be scrapped.

But what about meeting those minimum state standards?

That can be done without the section on owner-occupied housing, Douglas said, because it isn't in the state code. It got into the local proposal because Permits and Inspections staff members recommended it, he said.

As originally proposed, that section of the code would have dealt with everything from insect screening to required levels of interior lighting.

Setting such standards is appropriate when dealing with rental properties where the tenant has no ability to make needed repairs. But if home-owners don't care how many flies come in the windows, it is county government's job to force them to do so?

We say no, but with one reservation. In many neighborhoods, there are homeowners most charitably described as eccentrics. Some may not be able to afford necessary household maintenance, but many others seem adamant about not doing anything.

Living next to one of these dwellings, which sometimes resemble the hillbilly shacks in the old "L'il Abner" comic strip, can adversely affect one's quality of life, not to mention making it difficult to sell nearby properties.

So no, one loose board or torn awning shouldn't trigger a visit from inspectors. But when a home begins to look like a New Orleans shotgun shack after Hurricane Katrina blew through, neighbors should be able to do something besides gritting their teeth and watching their blood pressure increase.

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