Mercer Island invests in code compliance

The city added staff capacity and did a major code update to address residents’ concerns.

During Mercer Island’s comprehensive residential code update (completed in November 2017), the city’s Development Services Group (DSG) heard many complaints about neighbors and builders not complying with codes already in place. There was a sense that people remodeling or rebuilding their homes were “getting away with things,” according to DSG.

Mercer Island’s longtime code compliance officer, Jimmi Serfling, had worked in a complaint-based system to address issues with everything from fence heights and setbacks to debris and noise. She had a large caseload, with some cases being difficult and time-consuming to bring into compliance.

Last year, it became clear that code compliance was a high priority for the residents and Mercer Island City Council, especially with the new rules in place. The old code was also dispersed through several code chapters, hadn’t been updated in decades and lacked the regulatory “teeth” necessary for effective enforcement, according to the city’s website.

“It’s always been a struggle. We had a high volume of complaints but our code didn’t have strong regulatory tools, such as fines,” said Alison Van Gorp, DSG’s administrative services manager. “All we could really do was send letters, which were often ignored.”

The city also wanted to be more proactive about environmental and neighborhood concerns on construction sites, including erosion control, tree protection, parking and more. So it added staff and undertook a major code update for its compliance program. The planning commission held a public hearing on the code compliance regulations on June 20, and the council reviewed the proposed changes in July and August.

“I hear residents complaining at public meetings and on NextDoor about how the city is not enforcing our codes,” Van Gorp said. “These are the first steps in our response to those concerns.”

The council authorized the hiring of another code compliance officer, Dana Zlateff, a year ago. Both Serfling and Zlateff work half-time, bringing the employee headcount for code compliance to one full-time employee (1.0 FTE). At that same time, the city arborist position was also increased from half to full time. The increased staffing has enabled the city to add proactive monitoring of construction sites for violations of codes and permit requirements.

“Building inspectors go out at certain points in the process, but it could be months apart,” Van Gorp said.

On the policy side, the council approved an ordinance (18C-06) to consolidate, update and strengthen the city’s code compliance regulations in a new code chapter, Chapter 6.10 MICC, on Sept. 17. The new code provisions took effect on Oct. 1.

The new code creates broadly applicable enforcement tools (including misdemeanors, civil violations, civil infractions, voluntary compliance agreements, stop work orders and abatement) and adds new monetary penalties intended to spur compliance from people that are responsible for violations, according to the city’s newsletter. Additional penalties can also be levied for priority, repeat and deliberate violations.

Now, the city has a “broad set of tools” to address compliance issues that are “on par with what other cities are doing,” Van Gorp said.

When the city finds out about a potential code violation, it sends someone out to investigate. If there is an issue, homeowners are given a chance to voluntarily comply and fix it. If they don’t, the city will send out a notice to correct and a fine will start to accrue. It’s usually $150 per day, Van Gorp said.

DSG’s goal isn’t to make a profit, but to get people to comply with the code, Van Gorp said.

“It impacts their neighbors and their quality of life,” she said.

The goal with code compliance cases is to attain voluntary compliance and close the case, according to DSG.

“However, when a responsible party is resistant to compliance, additional tools will enable staff to spur action more quickly and bring cases to resolution,” according to the city’s website. “Achieving compliance in a timely manner is important for giving residents surety that city regulations will be upheld to maintain safety, environmental protection and community character.”

Many times, people doing what they perceive to be a small project, like building a patio or shed, may not know that they’re not complying with city codes. Van Gorp suggests that anyone interested in doing work on their property come to the permit counter at City Hall with drawings and other information before they start.

The city will be sending notices to property owners with open code compliance cases explaining the impact of the new regulations. In most cases, property owners will need to take action toward resolving the violation within a prescribed timeline, or they may face monetary penalties. The city will be sending notices on a rolling basis through the end of the year.

DSG’s code compliance team answers questions and investigates complaints on a variety of issues, including zoning, building and nuisance violations. To issue a complaint, complete a code compliance request form online at www.mercergov.org/complaintform. See the city’s website at www.mercergov.org for more.

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