Sussex County adopts ordinances to tackle unkempt properties

GEORGETOWN — Sussex County has taken the in-house route in efforts to clean up eyesore properties in county jurisdiction.

Following a public hearing at its Tuesday meeting, Sussex County Council adopted a series of ordinances that shift the county’s investigation and enforcement of unkempt properties from the courts to an administrative practice.

“It’s one of the biggest complaints we hear from constituents: problems with tall grass, junk cars and litter on properties,” Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson said. “Most violations are fairly simple fixes, but there are a few that are time-consuming for our code officers. The public wants results as quickly as possible, and we believe these steps will help us deliver those results, so Sussex Countians can enjoy and be proud of the way their community looks.”

Michael Costello

Michael Costello, the county’s government affairs manager, explained further.

“It moves the primary jurisdiction out of the criminal court into an internal administrative program, where we have better control over proceedings and timing,” he said, adding that the previous code “had some insufficiencies in getting the structure and the time frame to gain compliance or recover our expense when we need to step in and take abatement.”

Previously, violations of tall grass, excessive trash and inoperable vehicles on private property in the unincorporated portions of the county would find their way into court if the owner or occupant failed to correct the violation. County officials followed the enforcement steps laid out in county code; however, the process was often slow, sometimes taking as many as 90 days in back-and-forth notices and court actions to get a resolution.

County officials are hopeful the new process will cut turnaround times on problem parcels to as little as 30 days.

“Under the new ordinance, should code enforcement verify a violation exists, a violation notice is given to the owner (or person responsible), who has 10 days to remove or correct the violation,” said Mr. Costello, noting the previous time frame for violations like trash, tall grass and vehicles gave the owner 30 days.

“If the owner has made progress but is unable to correct the issue in 10 days, they can request an extension. Our approach was that the first request would be free, but additional requests would cost $25,” said Mr. Costello. “Our goal is to get the violation corrected before a fine has to be issued.”

The fine would be $100. Property owners or those responsible have the option to appeal to the county’s Board of Adjustment and Appeals.

Any fines and/or costs for abatement that go unpaid would be added to the real estate taxes for that property, Mr. Costello said.

District 5 Councilman John Rieley had some concern about people who may not be able to appeal due to financial constraints.

“I get calls all time. People are struggling. Their ability to appeal may be out of their reach,” said Councilman Rieley. “I just don’t know if that is the right thing to do.”

Mr. Costello explained the cost.

“We need to put something in place because everybody who receives a ticket, if there is no cost to appeal a ticket, then everybody will appeal,” he said.

Mr. Lawson added: “For all the folks that we get phone calls from that are hurting and have problems making their means, we also have the ones that are using the system to the best of their advantage, and that is really frustrating to our staff that have to go out and address these issues and show up after 30 days and nothing has been done, and they get a story that they need more time.

“Repeat offenders would have less leeway under the new regulations.”

Mr. Costello continued, “A notice of violation provided to the owner would serve as the only notice for the year.

“Right now, problem owners have taken advantage of our process. Under this new proposed ordinance, we give you one tall-grass violation, (then) we’re putting you on notice for the whole year,” he said.

The change in county code was facilitated by state legislation — House Bill 118 — passed by the Delaware General Assembly in February. Sponsored by state Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, and Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, HB 118 authorizes Sussex County to establish ordinances, rules and regulations regarding property maintenance, as well as penalties for violations of said ordinances, rules and regulations.

Council on June 2 introduced the series of ordinances, which received unanimous recommended approval from the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission on Aug. 13.

The new rules took effect immediately with council’s approval.