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Sylva cleans up town one property at a time

For the past year or so, Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody has been focused on cleaning up his town.

“We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and in the last year we’ve made significant progress,” Moody said.

The city’s health and sanitation ordinance says the town can order property owners to clean up public health nuisances on their property within 24 hours of being notified of the hazard. The so-called hazard abatement ordinance draws its force from state statutes that outline the rights of property owners and municipalities in the cases of public health nuisances.

In the past year, the town has gotten nine property owners to clean up perceived health hazards that range from rusting hulks of trailers, to piles of junk parts, to old tires in yards. Businesses haven’t been exempt from the push either, with Jackson Paper and a local auto repair shop making the list.

In town, the nuisance abatement program is considered Moody’s pet project, since he has pushed the stalled conversation forward.

Sylva’s updated list of residents with health risks on their property identified between 2009 and the present contains 17 names, and nine of the nuisances have already been abated.

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The way the program works is that members of the town staff or board identify potential nuisances. In the event that there is confusion over a property, the town’s attorney, Eric Ridenour, evaluates the site and makes a determination about the town’s legal ability to enforce the ordinance.

The town then sends legal notice in the form of a letter from the town manager to the property owner to clean up the health hazard. Upon receiving the letter, property owners have 24 hours to start the process of eliminating the nuisance.

Not everyone is thrilled with the program.

William Woodring was cited under the ordinance for junk car parts in the yard of his Rhodes Cove property.

“I don’t think it’s a health concern if it’s car parts,” Woodring said. “If it was trash, they might have something.”

Woodring said he got the notice in the mail, and was never spoken to in person. His mother died at the beginning of the month and much of the junk belonged to his brother, who was living in a trailer with his mother. It was a difficult time to get things cleaned up.

Woodring agreed to clean up his property, but he wonders whether the program is really about removing health risks or people making assumptions about other people’s property.

“I guess it’s just people nosing around and saying that’s junk,” Woodring said. “Some people’s junk is really worth something. Somebody ought to come talk to me about it anyway because I do pay my taxes.”

But Moody is unapologetic about the program.

“It’s certainly a health and sanitation thing, but it’s also an appearance thing,” Moody said. “What you do in your backyard does make a difference.”

Moody said that as land tracts in town get smaller, the effects of health nuisances on neighboring properties are accentuated. He allows that some people might object to the idea of being told to clean up their land.

“Some people might feel that way, but I don’t think our ordinances violate anybody’s property rights,” Moody said.

Commissioner Chris Matheson said the program isn’t designed to harass people or enforce aesthetic standards. She said calling people on the phone or talking to them doesn’t qualify as legal notice, and the town does what it can to help property owners clean up their land, including offering yearlong extensions in certain cases.

“We don’t go through the final steps without really trying hard to work with the property owner. It’s really just about getting the health nuisance cleaned up,” Matheson said. “There’s also grounds for someone who feels like it is just an aesthetic issue and not a health abatement issue to challenge it.”

In the end, the program relies on cooperation from property owners, and its record of success has shown that most people are willing to clean up health hazards on their land if they are given enough time to do it.

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