Hoarder crackdown begins in Macon

By court order, Code Enforcement cleared two properties in west Bibb County and has other hoarder cases pending

Public works crews spent hours clearing about 167 tons of debris from two properties last week on McKinley Drive near Lake Tobesofkee.

An excavator clawed together discarded building materials, plastic buckets, and tires to load into a revolving team of dump trucks. Once one truck was full, another that was recently unloaded was on the way back to the dirt road off Moseley Dixon Road.

Code enforcement acquired a court order to haul it all away under Macon-Bibb County’s new “nuisance property” ordinance approved in May. The revised law allows the county to remove junk from private property and put a lien on the property if the owners don’t remove it themselves and can’t reimburse the county for the work.

Macon-Bibb Code Enforcement Director J.T. Ricketson said there are a number of “hoarder properties” scattered about the county.

“When you have hoarder properties where they’ve got just piles and piles of junk, you’re going to have rats, snakes and other varmints, insects and so forth, and it creates a problem,” Ricketson said. “It also creates a money issue for everybody in the neighborhood because all their property values are going to go down because who wants to live next to a hoarder problem?”

Last October, code enforcement officers took the late Charlie Bloodworth’s heirs to Municipal Court over the amount of rubbish on two properties in the 5700 block of McKinley Drive. Their case is the first to be settled under the new “nuisance property” provision in the law that passed in May.

The family was given an opportunity to clear the yards themselves, Ricketson said.

“Generally, you give them 30 to 45 days for them to be able to clean it up,” Ricketson said. “We waited our due diligence plenty, and we went in (Wednesday) and executed the court order to clean it up.”

Once the property owner’s allotted time to clean up the property expires, code enforcement officers have 270 days to exercise their authority and get a court order to clear the debris themselves. They are supposed to salvage any reusable material that could be sold with proceeds offsetting the cost of demolition.

Within 90 days of clearing the property, the net cost of the county work must be tallied. If the property owner cannot pay, a lien can be placed on the property, or the county could go to court to foreclose on it.

‘Don’t want to see you again’

Friday, as Municipal Court Judge Crystal Jones presided over multiple cases of property neglect, blight and code violations in environmental court, she stressed that her goal is to get the properties cleaned up, not to levy up to a $1,000 fine per violation or sentence someone to up to six months in jail.

The Solomon family was fined $200 and ordered to have their east Macon yard cleaned up by Aug. 19 or face more penalties. (Liz Fabian)

“I’d rather you use your money for your house,” Jones told a Fort Hill father and son. The Solomons had been cited for piles of beer cans, other trash in their yard and a house in disrepair, but their debris did not rise to the level of “nuisance property,” where the offending material exceeds 3,000 pounds or 20 cubic yards – which is the size of a rollaway dumpster.

Their case reflects the challenges code enforcement officers face in trying to enforce community standards.

A letter was sent to the Solomons on March 2, according to court testimony, but 19 weeks later there was only minimal improvement. The last time they were in court, the Solomons were told to clean it up or face a $300 fine.

“Why is it that you all continue to accumulate debris?” Judge Jones asked when they were in court last week.

“We have a big family,” was the son’s response.

Because Jones saw some signs of progress in getting material to fix the house, she reduced the fine to $200 with the hopes they would clean up the property.

“I don’t want to see you again,” the judge told them.

If the problem persists and more trash accumulates and the county has to haul it away, the Solomons could have a lien placed on their property or eventually be in danger of losing their home under the nuisance property provisions.

“Land upon which debris, garbage, rubbish, materials, broken or defunct equipment, scrap tires, commercial or industrial waste or by-products, pollutants or other matter constituting a threat to public health or safety… ,” is covered under the new law.

In March, someone complained to code enforcement about a large number of lawnmowers, overgrown grass and what appeared to be inoperable cars on Greg Cutlip’s Lizella property. His case is another that falls into the nuisance property guidelines, Ricketson said.

A “no trespassing” sign is posted on Greg Cutlip’s mailbox in Lizella. A judge ruled he must let code enforcement officers onto the property to see if his lawnmowers and vehicles can be cranked and moved. (Liz Fabian)

When two officers visited Cutlip’s home May 12, he told them to get off his property, which has a “no trespassing” sign at the mailbox.

“Leave the premises. You are not welcome back and if you do, I will have you arrested,” Cutlip repeated as he was telling the judge his recollection of the visit.

May 17, Cutlip went before the Macon-Bibb County Commission to complain that code enforcement was “illegally trespassing” on his property, but the judge said they were only doing their job and have the authority to respond.

“If they’ve got a complaint, they have to come out,” Judge Jones told him. “It’s no different if a police officer gets a noise violation, they’re going to respond. They’re not going to call you first.”

When the judge asked how many pieces of lawn equipment he has on the property, Cutlip responded: “I don’t know. I never counted.”

He said he could get them all to run if he installed batteries and added fuel.

Cutlip has until Aug. 19 to show inspectors that his lawnmowers and vehicles are operable or face the maximum $1,000 fine. Cutlip said he has applied for building permits to put up several buildings to hold his vehicles and lawn equipment, which he said are for his personal use and are worth “thousands and thousands of dollars.”

Ricketson cautioned against trying to conceal what is considered nuisance debris.

“We actually have one hoarder that we’re going after soon that actually built a six foot-fence around their property trying to conceal the debris, but we have pictures of that debris, so the actual fence is a code violation,” Ricketson said.

How to report code violations

Code enforcement is looking back at property owners with multiple citations whose cases could be eligible for prosecution under the new law.

“Some of these properties have been a nuisance for probably a decade or more,” Ricketson said.

Hoarder cases should be reported to Macon-Bibb Code Enforcement by calling 478-803-0470 or posted online through  See, Click, Fix at maconbibb.us/seeclickfix. There is no hoarder category, but violations can be reported in the Yards/Premises or Abandoned/Inoperable/Junk Cars or Vehicles categories.

“If they just say that there are piles and piles of junk and give us an approximate address or at least a street, my guys will go out there and find it,” Ricketson said.

In the 18 months since Ricketson took over as code enforcement director in Mayor Lester Miller’s blight initiative, there are 4800 active cases on the list for various code violations, he said.

“We open tons of cases every month and the more we do, the more people see and the more they start to comply,” Ricketson said.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government news and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.