Code Enforcement process again the focus of County Commission concerns

Director of Planning and Development Services Department explains efforts to resolve issues without having to pursue penalties in Special Magistrate court

Commissioner Nancy Detert. News Leader image

Call it a “Code Enforcement sidebar.”

A recent Sarasota County Commission public hearing regarding a proposal to allow occupied recreational vehicles (RVs) on residential lots in the Pinecraft community changed course at one point. As a result of a question Commissioner Nancy Detert posed of staff, the focus turned to how county staff handles violations of land use regulations.

By the time the board members had turned back to the public hearing path, Commissioner Alan Maio had made it clear to Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, that, as far as Maio is concerned, Code Enforcement Division staff should not just wait for complaints to act.

Osterhoudt has responsibility for Code Enforcement under his department’s umbrella.

“Do we really have the staff to go around and check [for illegal electrical and sewer hookups]?” Detert asked county Planner Steve Kirk during the Pinecraft RV hearing. “If we pass this ordinance, we’re taking on an additional burden of enforcing it.” (See the related story in this issue.)

Osterhoudt then stepped to the podium. “We are reactive,” based on county policy, he explained of Code Enforcement’s handling of violations. Officers are assigned to zones in the county, he added, and each officer “is dealing with a large amount of cases.” Those cases, he continued, are driven by complaints.

The county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) contains a multitude of regulations, Osterhoudt pointed out. (The UDC combines land development and zoning laws for the county.)

“When you talk about us being reactive,” Detert responded, that indicated to her that Code Enforcement just sends officers out to investigate complaints. “Then, in essence, you’re asking the neighbors to police this [proposed new regulation] and report back to us and then we can send someone out.”

Matt Osterhoudt addresses the commission on Feb. 25. News Leader photo

Code Enforcement responds to a complaint within 48 hours, Osterhoudt told Detert. However, officers do take initiative on their own, he added. Still, he acknowledged, “There’s only so many cases that we can get to with each officer.”

“I’ve noticed that the county has moved more and more to [being] reactive,” Commissioner Maio pointed out. “I think you think that is [the commission’s] preference,” he told Osterhoudt. “It’s not my preference.”

“When I drive around,” Maio continued, “I can fill up sheet after sheet after sheet with what I see going on [that violates county regulations].”

“I don’t think we can exactly say we’re reactive,” Maio continued. Adding in the work of the county’s Building Department staff, Maio said, he believes 50% of cases are begun on a reactive basis and 50% are opened by officers responding to illegal situations they have seen.

Then Maio asked Osterhoudt whether the Code Enforcement officers are paid out of the county’s General Fund, which is made up largely of property tax revenue. (County finance staff has explained to the commissioners that the General Fund is the most constrained of all county funds in terms of expenditures, because it is pays for the operations of numerous county departments, as well as those of many of the constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and the supervisor of elections.)

The county officers who handle Florida Building Code violations are paid out of a fund comprising building permit revenue, Osterhoudt responded. The Code Enforcement Division officers are paid out of the General Fund, he added.

Then Maio said he recalled a request staff made to the commission several years ago for more Code Enforcement officers. Did the funding end for their employment, Maio asked.

Osterhoudt replied that he was not aware of any request for more Code Enforcement officers “in the recent past.”

(He was named director of Planning and Development in March 2017.)

However, he continued, a request was made for more technical staff. “We’ve had the same [level] of officers for a number of years.”

Maio acknowledged then that he remembered the discussion Osterhoudt had referenced.

Handling violations

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

Next, Maio pointed out that he had “gotten lectures” from the Office of the County Attorney and Planning and Development Services staff about the need to allow people time to rectify “simple stuff” after receiving a Notice of Violation (NOV) from Code Enforcement. He was told that, usually, in such situations, the timeline is 10 to 15 days, Maio added.

However, Maio continued, “I thought we [approved] additional, larger fines [for repeat offenders].”

The first step for a Code Enforcement officer who documents a violation is to issue a Notice of Violation, Osterhoudt confirmed. Then the person is allowed “reasonable time to address the violation. … Typically, that’s 30 days.”

A faster timeline could be imposed, Osterhoudt pointed out, if the violation represented a public welfare or safety issue.

If compliance with the code is not achieved in the allowed time, he continued, then the Code Enforcement officer will issue an Affidavit of Violation. If the person responsible for the violation still fails to rectify the problem, Osterhoudt added, the Code Enforcement officer will present the case details to a Special Magistrate, who can impose financial penalties.

If compliance is achieved then, but the violation recurs, Osterhoudt noted, staff can streamline the process by going back to the Special Magistrate immediately.

He then pointed out that the County Commission last year approved a Code Enforcement fine up to $5,000 in cases involving “irreparable and irreversible injury,” if the officer and staff can demonstrate the circumstances meet the necessary standard.
“I believe that’s a good summary,” Assistant County Attorney Josh Moye told the commissioners. The first part of the process, Moye emphasized, is working toward voluntary compliance.

“Compliance is good,” Maio said. “I’ve got that. But I have seen instances in my 36 years here [in the county] where people comply in the 30 days and then … three to four days later, they’re back at it.”

This is not the first time in recent years that county staff has explained the Code Enforcement approach to the commission. In May 2016, Tom Polk, who preceded Osterhoudt as director of Planning and Development, also talked of Code Enforcement officers’ efforts to put their focus on education and engagement with the public in an effort to resolve complaints without having to pursue the Special Magistrate process.

This is a section of the Sarasota County Code that contains Code Enforcement regulations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Polk and Sandra LeGay, the county’s Code Enforcement manager, provided a May 11, 2016 written report to the commission. Serving as the basis for the May 18, 2016 discussion, it explained that Code Enforcement officers deal with several ordinances, “involving a range of topics …” Among those are public nuisance issues, such as excessive growth of vegetation, accumulation of rubbish, and unlicensed and inoperable vehicles in neighborhoods; zoning regulations; sound pollution; signs in the county’s rights of way; and solid waste.

Garbage sits in bins outside a Siesta Key house, waiting for Waste Management pickup. The house is being rented illegally for short-term vacation purposes, neighbors have alleged. Contributed photo

That report also noted, “In general, using the [Affidavit of Violation] process makes the most sense when there is a continuing code violation on a property, rather than [in] cases [where violations] are sporadic, discontinuous, or intermittent or where a property owner is in the act of resolving the issue in a reasonable timeframe.”

In February 2019, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis took questions about Code Enforcement issues during a meeting of the Siesta Key Condominium Council.

Under the guidelines of Florida law, Lewis said, “You have to be able to establish a violation and due process,” and anyone who violates the county code has to be given the opportunity to “cure” the situation.

Code Enforcement complaints on Siesta Key have multiplied in recent years because of issues related to illegal, short-term vacation rentals in single-family residential areas. The problems have been a focus of Siesta Key Association (SKA) directors, who have been working with county staff to try to find solutions.