Commission votes to clean up Carter County

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   After much discussion and a motion to table the resolution, Carter County has a new litter law and a designated hearing board to oversee enforcement.
   The Carter County Commission voted 14-9 Monday to approve a countywide litter law which applies to property within 50 feet of a county highway. County Executive Dale Fair said he had not had anyone call his office to voice an opinion against the litter law, "but it's almost a daily call that I get from people that want us to take some action."
   Carter County Planning Administrator Chris Schuettler presented the litter resolution and answered an array of questions from commissioners.
   Tom "Yogi" Bowers, code enforcement officer for the City of Elizabethton, made a motion to table the resolution, telling Schuettler: "My position is we need a litter law; but like it is, it won't pass. What I would like to see is it go back to the committee and have some bugs worked out." The motion to table failed 14-9, and the resolution was then open for discussion.
   Commissioner Al Meehan questioned whether there would be an overlap in enforcement of the stormwater resolution recently passed by the commission, and the litter law.
   Schuettler said that while the litter law covers the entire county, it doesn't take into account junk or rubbish that might find its way into drains. "That would be considered illicit discharge and would be enforceable under stormwater," he said. However, because the planning office will oversee both litter and stormwater, there could be some overlapping enforcement.
   Schuettler also explained the need for a hearing board. The commission voted to follow Washington County's lead, approving the commission's Health and Welfare Committee as the hearing board and charging it with conflict resolution.
   Schuettler told commissioners the main objective of the litter law is compliance. "We don't want to go out here and take people's money away from them, per say; we want compliance." The first step, he said, is a site visit, where county officials meet with the property owners and try to help them come into compliance.
   "A lot of times, people just can't help themselves; they need a little guidance," he said. If that doesn't work, the letter-writing campaign begins. First the property owner is sent a letter informing him that he is in violation. The owner has 30 days to clean up or to request a hearing before the Health and Welfare Committee. If the property owner takes no action, the first letter is followed by one, or possibly two certified letters.
   "If they totally don't want to come into compliance and don't want to work with the county, then we have the option of being able to actually go in and clean the place up, or take them to General Sessions or Chancery Court," Schuettler said.
   Commissioner Jim Whaley asked, "What do you do if someone is elderly or not financially able to go in and clean up?"
   Schuettler said the county then will work with other family members, and possibly recruit neighbors, churches or organizations to assist that person.
   Fair said the hearing board has the authority to actively recruit community organizations, neighbors, churches, and/or solicit other opportunities to provide assistance to citizens who are not financially able to provide self-compliance, according to Section II(b) of the resolution.
   "I think that we can assist these people. It's not going to be a hammer; it's going to be a neighbor-to-neighbor type situation," Fair said.
   Whaley also questioned who the enforcement officer would be. According to Schuettler, the county will have to hire an enforcement officer. "We've looked at the idea of maybe going with a sheriff's deputy or using constables," he said. The position would be part-time, with no benefits package, thus saving the county money.
   As Schuettler began to field more and more questions, Planning Commission Chairman Bob Hughes was given the floor.
   "The reason that we're interested in any part of this litter law is twofold. One, of course, is the well-being of the people of Carter County -- health and welfare in itself. ... All of this litter and trash that people have piled along the road or on their property should be removed for nothing more than a health reason only," Hughes said, citing the prevalence of viruses such as SARS.
   The other reason for the litter law, he said, is to make the area more attractive for tourism and "an opportunity to grow into one of the finest areas for recreation in the nation, to acquire a financial status that we've never known before.
   "If we pass this, we're not going out here and jumping on people, saying, 'You're violating the law; you've got to do this.' ... We go out there and reason with people. That's all that's necessary," he said.
   Commissioner John D. Snyder said two houses in his district burned several years ago. "We don't even have a rule in this county that says you have a certain amount of time to tear that house down. I've got two up here in Long Hollow that rats have been running in and out."
   Commissioner Amos Stevens said he had mixed feelings about the litter law. "Most of the input I've got from my constituents is against it." However, he said, every time he goes through the drive-thru at McDonald's in Hampton and sees the old mattresses piled on an adjacent vacant lot, it reminds him that "we need something here."
   Commissioner John Lewis asked, "If somebody has a 'No Trespassing' sign, what does that mean? ... Maybe [the owner] lives a different lifestyle than we do. Do we have the right to tell that man that he has to manage his property according to our rules?"
   Schuettler responded: "Like Mr. Snyder was saying, we've got two homes in the Long Hollow area of Valley Forge that have been burned for several years now. They're infested with rats. People go by them and throw their garbage in that place. You have no control over it. ... A rat doesn't read a 'No Trespassing' sign, so you can't really operate like that. It's going to get into a neighbor's house and yes, they do have a complaint. I think it is the county's responsibility to give some protection to those individuals; and that's basically what this law does."
   Commissioner Bowers warned that enforcement would not be easy. As code enforcement officer for the City of Elizabethton, or "junk police," he said, "I would vote for this bill today if it had some teeth in it. I'm responsible for the whole city and I've got more than I can do. It would take 10 full-time people for the county."
   Bowers warned that the enforcement officer is likely to run up against folks who don't want to clean up. "They're going to throw rocks at you. That's how come I have this job instead of people from the building department. They'd get run off the property."