In wake of Florence, Pender talks getting tough on trash

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Commissioners talk about adding staff, making debris removal a priority

BURGAW — Based on testimony and discussion at the Pender County Commissioners meeting last week, the county could soon be getting tough on trash.

Commissioner David Piepmeyer was joined by several other commissioners in lobbying for increasing the code enforcement staff in the 2019-20 budget year. He also said that going forward, he would like to see code enforcement work on being proactive in tackling trash and debris issues, not just reactive to complaints as is currently the case.

The county has struggled since last September with mountains of trash and debris left in the wake of Hurricane Florence. But the fact that trash and debris not necessarily connected to the storm is collecting on a number of county properties took center stage in Burgaw on Monday.

The issue was brought to the fore by Elaine Nalee, vice-chair of the county’s planning board who appealed to the commissioners for help with a two-year struggle over a neighboring property that, she said, has become a graveyard for abandoned vehicles and a depository for mounds of trash and construction debris.

There is a problem, the board generally agreed, when a two-year fight still has no end in sight.

“It is not acceptable for someone like Ms. Nalee … to have a situation like this going on for two years, where it is plainly visible from the road,” Commissioner Jackie Newton said.

Planning Director Kyle Breuer told the board that his department responds to complaints, notifies offending property owners, and even begins a fining process that can cost them $50 per day or more. Compliance rates, he said after the meeting, are actually quite high — 97 percent in 2017, 86 percent in 2018.

But his department’s administrative function ends there. After a final notice to property owners, the case is turned over to the county attorney, and actions the attorney may take are often dictated by the commissioners.

The board, said Commissioner David Williams, has generally been willing to give property owners the benefit of the doubt if some good-faith effort at cleanup seems to be taking place. But some of those good-faith efforts tend to evaporate before reaching a positive conclusion — even while the board remains reluctant to turn to the courts for relief.

Given Pender County’s growth and increasing urbanization, Piepmeyer suggested that enforcement of nuisance statutes in the county code needs to become, in general, more timely — and aggressive.

Doing so likely means the hiring of additional compliance enforcement employees.

“We do not have the manpower to go out there and proactively start looking for these things,” Chairman George Brown said.

“Why have the ordinances if we don’t enforce them?” Commissioner Jackie Newton said as she continued to press the point that sheriff’s deputies are also authorized by ordinance to police trash accumulation situations.

That was a contention that raised the temperature of the discussion.

“I am going on the record right here that there is no way that I am going to support advocating that people call the sheriff’s office for code enforcement,” Williams said. “I am totally against that. I have heard you say this seven or eight times. I heard you the first time; I don’t need you to say it seven or eight times.”

“Then take exception with the ordinance,” Newton fired back, because a law-enforcement role in code compliance “is what the ordinance says.”

Discussions to shape the 2019-20 budget are currently underway.

“It sounds like this board is ready to beef up this process,” Brown concluded.

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