Responsible property ownership and maintenance is at the heart of neighborhood stability.

While property ownership grants important rights, there are also important responsibilities placed on the owner. Most property owners meet their obligations in maintaining their properties and complying with codes, but many do not.

A property on Michigan Avenue in Belen before it was contacted by the Community Preservation Department.
Photos courtesy of the city of Belen

In those cases, local government has the task of encouraging negligent owners to meet their responsibilities, such as keeping their property free of high weeds, not allowing a structure to fall into disrepair and even making sure their dogs don’t bark at all hours of the night.

And if property owners can’t or won’t comply with local ordinances, government officials can take action to minimize the harm to the community. This is the role of code enforcement.

Code enforcement is a critical element in fighting neighborhood decline, preserving sound neighborhoods and restoring distressed areas. When used proactively, code enforcement can identify, halt and reverse the negative impact of vacant, abandoned and problem properties.

Earlier this year, the city of Belen established the Community Preservation Department, which includes code enforcement, permitting, animal control, risk management and safety. Charles Eaton, the city’s community preservation, risk management director, said the city is transitioning from the enforcement mentality to community preservation.

“We want to work with folks and establish relationships in the community, but still enforce our ordinances,” Eaton said.

The goal of any program is to encourage private owners to maintain their property. When a city cannot achieve compliance, they have systems in place that can enable it to gain control over the property in a timely fashion, abate the hazardous condition and return the property to productive use.

“It’s about preserving what we have here,” Eaton said of Belen. “If we can do anything to motivate those individuals (to maintain their properties), that’s what we try to do. Our goal is to preserve and beautify the community and add to the value of our history.”

A code enforcement officer may enforce one or all types of violations, including animal control, zoning, housing, property maintenance, business licensing, building codes or other types of enforceable codes.

Code enforcement officers frequently receive complaints from citizens, other city departments and outside agencies. They investigate those complaints and if they confirm violations, then they’ll work with property owners to ensure that they comply with local regulations.

Voluntary compliance is always the main goal for a code enforcement officer.

The property on Michigan Avenue in Belen was cleaned up after being notified by the city.

Eaton, who is also a Valencia County commissioner and retired fire chief, said most of his time is dealing with nuisance complaints. On any given day, the department will receive two to 10 complaints from the community.

“We have our nuisance ordinances, which we go out and police every day,” Eaton said. “A nuisance can be a property that has an accumulation of household garbage and debris. They’re not disposing of their refuge on a weekly basis and it builds up either in their front or backyard.”

With a number of cases at any given time, Eaton says there is a process they must follow. In a case where there’s health issues involved, such as rodents on a property, they’ll do a knock and talk, meaning they’ll approach the residence and try to talk to the owner or occupant.

“We’ll introduce ourselves and tell them why we’re there,” he said. “Nine times out of 10, they know why we’re there. They’ll tell us they have been trying, but sometimes they have a hardship and aren’t able to.”

In cases like this, Eaton said they will provide the homeowner with education and resources, such as the disposal company’s phone number.

“If it’s really bad, we give them a time limit to resolve it and tell them if it isn’t taken care of, we’ll have to cite them into court,” he said. “A good majority of those people will react immediately after we do the knock and talk.”

If he can’t make contact with the occupant, they’ll research the property and send a warning notice to the owner. Once they receive the letter, they have 10 days to resolve the property issue.

If the issue isn’t resolved, they’ll receive a second notice and they will then have five days to comply. And if they continue not to comply, they will be issued a summons into court.

Absentee out-of-state owners may present a particular problem, as the local government may not be able to even issue a summons. In those cases, voluntary compliance or a lien against the property are usually the only options.

While some view code enforcement as an annoying intrusion into the free use of private property, code enforcement is a tool for local government to make sure the city is clean and attractive for its residents, businesses and visitors.

In Belen, most violations are about household garbage on property, weeds, inoperable vehicles and RVs being used in residential settings.
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Belen City Hall

Every municipality and county adopts its own ordinances, including property setbacks (a distance from a property line or structure within which building is prohibited), noise (a noise that is unreasonably load and causes distress or is a disturbance to others), pet restrictions (how many pets are allowed in a household), illegal burning (prohibition of burning solid waste, including garbage or rubbish; and/or open burning restrictions) and property maintenance, just to name a few.

While property owners often think the way they take care of their property is their own business, the major impact that neighboring properties have on one another’s value and enjoyment means that building maintenance and safety becomes the business of everyone in the neighborhood.

Code enforcement officers support and enhance quality of life in any given area, while working to keep aging buildings, homes and properties from becoming eyesores. Every community faces struggles with vacant buildings, trash, tall grass and weeds, graffiti and inoperable vehicles.

“Our objective isn’t to cite people into court or make it hard on them,” Eaton said. “The purpose of code enforcement is to maintain a clean and safe community. No one wants to live in a run-down neighborhood. We want to work with people and make sure Belen is beautiful.”

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