Garbage, debris, junk, and old tires…what’s a township to do? - BlueStone Press
September 19, 2020

Garbage, debris, junk, and old tires…what’s a township to do?

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Rondout Valley summers seem close to heaven; beauty is all around us. Therefore it’s jarring to round a bend and come upon a pile of trash by the roadside, and particularly annoying when junk accumulates on private property near where you live. Neighboring residents can become frustrated when they complain to town officials about what they perceive as unsightly messes in other people’s yards but the rusting hulks, pieces of unidentifiable plastic, bags of trash, etc., continue to inhabit the landscape for months or even years.

So what are the laws about junk and trash? The devil is, as always, in the details. “First there’s property maintenance code,” said Rochester town supervisor Mike Baden. That’s a NYS law called the Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code. “It involves everything from grass cutting to garbage left around…anything that could become hazardous in terms of fire or for sanitary reasons.”

Local municipal governments can enact their own laws tailored to their specific locales, as long as they’re at least as stringent as the Uniform Code. On the NYS website is this sample of a possible “junk law” law that could be adopted by a municipality:

“The Governing Board hereby declares that a clean, wholesome, and attractive environment is of vital importance to the continued general welfare of its citizens, and that regulation of the deposit, accumulation, or maintenance of junk regardless of quantity is hereby prohibited anywhere within sight of persons lawfully traveling the public highways or within sight of neighboring property. By adoption of this law the municipality declares its intent to preserve and promote a reasonable quality of environment and aesthetics and to prohibit actions and conduct that tend to depreciate not only the property on which it is located but also the property of other persons in the neighborhood and the community generally.”

This quote from Rochester’s Solid Waste Law emphasizes safety and sanitation rather than aesthetics:

“It shall be unlawful for any person as owner, lessee, agent, tenant or otherwise to throw, cast, spill or otherwise deposit or cause or permit to be thrown, cast, spilled or deposited any rubbish, garbage, manure, offal or other decomposable organic or putrescible matter, which will or could create a public nuisance or act as a breeding ground for or attraction to insects or vermin in or about any land or lot, vacant or otherwise, within the limits of the town…It shall be unlawful for any person to deposit, place or store in or about any premises or vacant lands any combustible rubbish, refuse or waste material, which might serve to increase the fire hazard in the surrounding area.”

Mere unsightliness doesn’t’t count as a code violation, at least in Rochester. “It has to rise to a hazardous level,” explained Baden. “Not mowing the lawn or something like that—there’s really not a lot we can do.” (There is, however, a statewide provision against having more than one unregistered vehicle on your property.)

When there is a complaint made about the maintenance of a particular address, Jerry Davis, the code inspector, will go out to survey it. His first action, if he decides there is justification for it, is to let the owner know that he/she is out of compliance. “The first notice will usually be a letter alerting people to the problem,” said Baden. “He gives people a certain number of days,” which can be anywhere from five days to a month, depending on the situation, according to Davis. “If they rectify the problem, that’s it. If they don’t, he sends a violation notice and refers it to the courts for a hearing by the judge.”

The town of Rochester, like every township in the US, is not unilateral; the court system is independent of the code-enforcement department. “Jerry can’t issue a fine. He’s like a police officer. He can issue the equivalent of a ticket—a violation notice that requires you to come to court. Then the judge can determine what fine is applicable. Or sometimes they’re satisfied with the person’s explanation and drop the matter.” The amount of a fine is somewhat up to the judge’s discretion. “Some [violations] have the maximum fine spelled out in the law; others, whatever the generalized maximum number is.” People can ask to pay the fine in installments, making the process even longer. If you pay the fine and you don’t clean it up, you can start the whole process all over again.”

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, unheard cases have been piling up while the local courts stayed shut. We are starting to have some court cases now,” Baden said, “which could potentially be some land-use cases, code violations.” Unpaid fines can eventually result in the judge issuing a warrant for arrest of the offender, depending on the seriousness of the offense.

The town has one other recourse: the board can decide to do a cleanup and charge the cost of it to the landowner’s taxes.It can happen,” Baden affirmed. “The town can initiate the cleanup and the cost gets levied to the tax bill for that property. Jerry can say, ‘I’d like the town to take action’, and then we would either job it out or do it with our own highway department depending on the situation. We have done that with demolition of unsafe buildings. Every year there’s a budget of $10,000 put aside for that purpose. It zeros itself out—it’s budget-nutral [because it’s eventually collected in tax form]. We recently had to make that threat to a landowner—a bank that took over an abandoned property, and it had a trailer on it. First we boarded up the door, and then somebody came along and cut a hole in the side of the trailer… We finally notified the bank that they had to remove the trailer, as it was a dangerous situation.” (The bank did eventually remove it.) The town is reluctant to do this sort of intervention and resorts to it only “when all other options are exhausted,” Baden said. If it’s a hazardous situation, and the town gets involved, the town could potentially become responsible for the hazardous cleanup. Say somebody had a bunch of oil bins or some chemical that was leaking into the ground—we probably wouldn’t’t get involved in cleaning it up, because as soon as we touched it we would become responsible for anything that leaked into the ground.”

Then there’s the related subject of increased dumping by the side of the road. Chief Constable Rich Miller reports more and more complaints from people who are bothered by anonymous dumpers.I don’t know if people have financial issues, or it’s laziness, or frustration, or if it’s that people have more time and are cleaning things out…. probably a combination of all of the above,” commented Baden. The other day I was driving down Cherrytown Road and suddenly there’s four tires by the side of the road. They weren’t’t there a week ago.” Sound familiar to anyone? “I also just discovered recently that we have no littering law. Even though there’re signs up all over town saying there’s a fine, there is no littering law.” (The town board could of course, change that.)

There are the people who fling garbage bags onto the side of the road, and others who might be looking for a place to get rid of something bigger, like an old appliance, etc. An abandoned property that’s been left looking like a dump is an invitation for other people to start using it as a dump. “If we catch the people dumping there, there are solid-waste laws. That is actually a fairly serious crime,” said Baden. “Vacant landowners, it’s really a problem, because you can cite them, but if they don’t answer—it’s not something like we’re going to send a marshal after them to arrest them. They actually have a local property maintenance law that I’m going to explore that gives them the ability to enforce it sooner than the state law does. You can write a local law that’s stronger than the state law. So I’m going to explore what they’re doing and possibly enact it.”

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