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Officials revive local legislation to streamline weed abatement process and lessen taxpayer burden
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Officials revive local legislation to streamline weed abatement process and lessen taxpayer burden

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Abating overgrown properties

An abandoned house overgrown with weeds and brush on Range Street in March 2018.

Dothan commissioners once again signed off on local legislation that will shorten the timeline and reduce taxpayer costs associated with abating overgrown weeds on properties when owners fail to keep their yards mowed.

Weed abatement has historically been a long and expensive process for property owners and the city’s Public Works Department.

The same piece of legislation was previously approved in February of this year to be introduced into the state legislature, but never made it in part due to the pandemic that suspended legislative activities for two months and left many bills dead in the water.

This time, however, City Manager Kevin Cowper said that State Rep. Paul Lee would like to have the bill ready to “drop” on the first day of the 2021 legislative session.

The bill seeks to decrease the time frame by designating a departmental enforcement officer to make decisions rather than depending on the city commission’s meeting schedule.

“We want to accelerate the process and make it cheap, and that’s what this legislation will do,” Planning and Development Director Todd McDonald said in a February meeting after describing the “long and involved” process that state law dictates for Class 5 municipalities that requires three separate actions by the city representatives.

From the initial complaint reporting someone’s property is overgrown with weeds, shrub, wild bushes, grass or other vegetative growth to Public Works employees actually cutting the grass is around six weeks to two months.

McDonald said the city can field several more complaints after the yard has been deemed in violation of the city ordinance regulating weeds until it gets cleaned up. Meanwhile, the yard can become more overgrown.

Cowper said shortening the process is critical to the Love Dothan’s sub-program “Love your Neighborhood” of which beautification is a chief component.

“I think a lot of us experience a lot of frustration in the code enforcement process where the weeds are long, and then at that point in takes another six to eight weeks to get through the process to get something done so it can be quite frustrating, so this will condense that time frame, maintain due process at the same time, but allow us to continue our beautification efforts in Dothan, which I think are starting to make an impact for us,” Cowper said Tuesday.

The abatement procedure starts with a complaint, which must be verified by city personnel. The property must be overgrown to the point it has become injurious to the health, safety and welfare of the community.

The owner is sent a letter by the department giving 10 days to comply with ordinance. If after the 10 days, city workers inspect the property to find it still not in compliance, it is bundled with others and referred to the city to start the formal abatement process.

The City Commission must formally declare the properties to be nuisances, with photos and information provided by the Planning and Development Department, and approve a motion to call a public hearing at the next regularly scheduled public meeting, which generally occurs two weeks later.

The city clerk sends a notice to all owners to inform them of the abatement proceedings. The legal notice is advertised in the newspaper in accordance with the law, and the city posts a sign on the owner’s property. Signs cost $94 each; the two legal notices required in the 30-day time frame cost $156.50. Even if the property owner cleans up the property, he or she is still required to pay the fees for signage, advertising and notices.

The City Commission holds public hearings so property owners can address the commission before determining lots are a nuisance and approving that taxes be levied on property owners to retrieve some of the city’s costs. The cost of cleanups varies due to the number of lots, their sizes and the extent of the work required, but generally cost at least $127.

The proposed legislation seeks to trim the abatement process to around two weeks; reduce the requirement for advertising and other formal notices; and create an appeals process through Circuit Court. Property owners will be notified with a letter sent to the owner of record’s address and a separate notice posted on-site.

“Everything is internal; everything is staff-driven,” McDonald said. “The only time it will come to the City Commission anymore is when they assess the fees for the cut lawns.”

That fee, McDonald said, would be lessened a great deal for the taxpayer.

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In 2019, the code enforcement office received 397 complaints of overgrown lots. In 18% of them — 72 — costs were assessed totaling $19,140, according to the city clerk.

The Public Works Department also seeks to ease the burden on its staff of mowing and cleaning up the properties, instead using local contractors.

The proposed legislation only applies to mayor/commission/city manager forms of government in Class 5 municipalities.

In other business, Mayor Mark Saliba read several proclamations, honoring individuals and highlights awareness campaigns.

He proclaimed “Johnny Oppert Day,” “Red Ribbon Week” on behalf of the Dothan-Houston County Substance Abuse Partnership, “Homeless Connect Month” on behalf of the Southeast Alabama Coalition for Homelessness and the Harbor, “Public Power Week” on behalf of Dothan Utilities, and “Fire Prevention Week” on behalf of the Dothan Fire Department.

The Fire Department awarded its annual awards to firemen:

• “Rookie of the Year” went to Firefighter Cole Crawford.

• “Firefighter of the Year” went to Firefighter Mitchell Tucker.

• “Sergeant of the Year” went to Sgt. Jeremy Alley.

• “Fire Officer of the Year” went to Capt. Shane Lee.

Cowper also awarded Jesse Taylor with the fire department “Employee of the Month.”

He also reminded the public that Monday is “Columbus Day,” a city holiday, and the trash and garbage pick-up schedules will be altered next week.

In other action, the city commission:

• Awarded a bid, entered into a contract and issued a “Notice to Proceed” and other related documents to Max Foote Construction Company, LLC for the City of Dothan New Cypress Creek WWTP Ultraviolet (UV) Disinfection Equipment Installation for the sum of $252,600.

• Extended the agreement with the Town of Kinsey to temporarily continue sewer billings based upon monthly water meter readings set forth in City of Dothan Resolution 2019-124 to December 2021.

• Agreed to aid Foley in its efforts to recover from the devastation left by severe weather on Sept. 16 by sending utility trucks, equipment, and city employees.

• Issued an emergency purchase order to Blankenship Contracting, Inc. of Dothan for $62,500 to rebuild a section of the 30-inch diameter sanitary sewer trunk line behind 201 Hagler Rd.

• Entered into a contract with Network Technology Services (NTS) to provide IT infrastructure support and network design services for an annual amount of $96,000. Cowper said the IT department is still seeking to fill an open position that will replace the need for the contract.

• Entered into a Community Traffic Safety Program Grant Participation Agreement with Enterprise State Community College through its Southeast Alabama Highway Safety Office for participation in the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs Law Enforcement Traffic Safety grant programs.

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