Rats loose in ECC, landlord feels trapped with property
Following a hiatus which lasted through winter and spring, the East Carbon Planning and Zoning Commission seems to have come on-line just in time, as the threat of vermin, unsafe living conditions and renter turmoil have the small city spinning.
While the city council and zoning committee both have plans to establish and enforce strong regulations aimed at fixing the issue, exactly who is to blame for the growing problem is a moving target.
"We are going to send a simple message," said East Carbon City Council member David Maggio. "Clean up or get out. At this point, this issue has to do with our survival as a community. How can we market a town with this type of filth?"
The filth Maggio alludes to stems from a recent issue involving rats and dog excrement found in and around an East Carbon rental property. The issue was brought before the council at their March 27 council meeting when residents Jeanette DeCastro and Jim Robertson complained that a family who had been renting a property at 202 Rawlins had left several large rats behind when they vacated the home.
While the rats were not publicly discussed until March 27, the city had been dealing with the critters since February when city Police Officer Kelsey Shumway was called out to the residence because the family within was advertising the rats for sale via a sign in the front yard. Because the city currently has no ordinance which addresses the actual raising of the rats, Shumway was only able to stop the tenant from selling the animals because she lacked a business license.
The renters left the home just before the meeting on March 27. Even though the presence of an unknown number of rats was a major problem, it was not the only issue both residents and local officials had with the property.
"I had been dealing with problems at that residence for almost a year," said East Carbon Planning and Zoning Chairperson Liz Ferguson, who also happens to live directly across the street from the Rawlins home. "The amount of dog excrement that was left when they left was appalling."
Soon after the home was emptied, local resident fears were realized as neighbors not 200 feet from the Rawlins property soon caught two large rats in traps they had set near their home. Ferguson then brought photos of the animals before the council to further demonstrate the need for action.
In addition to the trapped rats, city animal control officer Cody Valdez reported finding three separate nests in the property upon inspecting the residence at the behest of Maggio.
"I found one in the bathroom, one under the sink and one in the stove," said Valdez. "There were not any rats in the home when I inspected but the nests were there."
Citizen complaints concerning poor conditions and "filth" go far beyond one property. Most who speak out during public sessions detail what they see as an epidemic - an epidemic of absentee land owners and renters whom residents allege come in, destroy property and then skip town, leaving long-standing homeowners to live with the mess.
"I don't care how any of these land owners got here but this has to stop," continued Maggio. "So many residents including myself have put in great amounts of sweat equity and untold sums of money making their homes beautiful and to be forced to live next to sub-human filth. It's not fair."
Maggio reported inspecting several area homes and said that the conditions he found were not fit for human occupancy. For this reason, both Maggio and Ferguson have plans to substantially increase the city's power to deal with property issues.
Recently, Ferguson proposed that the council take several portions of Price city's property laws and make them their own, stating that the Price ordinances should give city officials the leverage they need to deal with the problem."
But where does the problem lie?
According to property owner Don Hicken of Springville, rampant fines and threats have in no way gone toward improving city property by any means.
Hicken currently owns 14 East Carbon homes and has borne the brunt of city ire concerning unkempt property in the local area.
"I have received seven citations since the end of March," said Hicken via telephone. "Whereas I had only received two in the years prior and one of those was for problems with a single weed."
According to Hicken, he as invested more than $40,000 in his properties on items such as new roofs, new laminate flooring, completely renovated electrical and plumbing in several homes as well and many interior renovations which can't be seen from the street. In lieu of the recent barrage of tickets, Mr. Hicken has also sent 30 gallons of paint to East Carbon in order to try and appease what he feels is a vendetta against him.
"I am reasonably sure that no other property owners are being fined at the same level in which I am," said Hicken. "Moreover, it has been difficult to keep renters in East Carbon due to the economy and remote location. I can only be pushed so far with these fines before I will have to let these properties go into foreclosure and that isn't going to help anybody. I am more than willing to be run out of town. I just don't know how I can take my property with me."
Hicken reports that he has addressed city complaints as they have come his way and he also contends that his homes are in comparable shape to the majority of others he has seen in East Carbon.
City residents and officials disagree.
"There is a difference between a home and a wooden tent which is occupied by people who don't know the meaning of the word hygiene," concluded Maggio. "The bottom line is that these owners have to take responsibility for what is being done on their property and who they allow to do it. To me it is not enough for an owner to say, I didn't know what they were doing in there."
City officials are due to review the ordinance, which was provided by Ferguson, at their next session. The outcome of which could possibly meaning even steeper fines for Hicken, who reports being at his wits end concerning the issue.
"I would love to get out from underneath the properties I have in East Carbon. I just don't know how at this point," he said. "I understand that buying these properties was a mistake both because of the distance I live from the community and the lack of knowledge I had concerning the poor rental market and other issues in East Carbon."