Nuisance Ordinance Up for Debate in Lexington

Oct 17, 2011

Property owners in Lexington would be more accountable under a proposal going before a city council committee Tuesday .  If approved, owners could be cited for poorly maintained yards, unsafe conditions and illegal activities on their property.  Part of the debate over the proposed ‘chronic nuisance’ ordinance is who it might govern.

Work on a chronic nuisance ordinance began after council member Peggy Henson received a series of complaints about poorly maintained residences. Callers reported problems like yards filled with broken furniture, high grass and litter.  Henson says the city’s code enforcement officers would respond and there would be improvement.  But, eventually the problems would re-emerge.  That’s when Henson decided Lexington needed a tougher law with tougher penalties.

“If it were determined they had a number of violations within a period of time, they would be assessed additional fines,” said Henson.

Among Henson’s allies is Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, who admits Lexington simply hasn’t given such persistent nuisances the attention they deserve.

“Citizens over the years have had concerns that we don’t have a strong enough nuisance ordinance, so that if a property is actually a nuisance we can actually deal with it and make something happen,” added Gorton.

Current codes only govern residences, but, the proposed Chronic Nuisance Ordinance would pertain to all property, including commercial property and properties owned by churches and social service agencies.  Among them would be the Catholic Action Center. 

The center, on 5th Street near downtown Lexington, is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington.  The center, (plus satellite facilities on seventh and Winchester road) provide meals, clothing, shelter and emergency assistance to homeless Kentuckians. However, council member Steve Kay claims the center’s clients often make some of the center’s neighbors anxious.

“It’s the impact of the numbers of people. ..the numbers of people who have mental health problems or addiction problems….  people who can be unduly aggressive….  people loitering,” said Kay.

Kay says the intent is not to shut down the Catholic Action Center.  Instead, they hope to work together in a search for solutions.  Already there have been neighborhood meetings and increased security.

Still, the “Chronic Nuisance Ordinance worries the center’s director.  Ginny Ramsey thinks it could be used to curtail the services to the homeless.

“You can say, oh we are going to look at this case by case.  Well, our community is not one that would want an ordinance that could jeopardize services to the poorest…services that are keeping people going…you want to speak of crime….crime goes  up when people aren’t fed,” said Ramsey.

In fact, Ramsey says many of the people served by the Catholic Action Center are its neighbors.  She admits it’s a high crime area, but argues their ministry helps reduce such lawlessness.

Dave Christenson directs the Central Kentucky Housing and Homelessness Initiative.  He sees the “Chronic Nuisance Ordinance” as part of a nationwide trend.  By strengthening government regulation over private property, Christenson says such laws can be used to exclude undesirable businesses, organizations and people.

“There is some empowerment within it for folks to go after people that they don’t want in their neighborhood whether it’s a service provider or whether it’s a local drinking establishment or whatever it might be,” explained Christenson.

While some communities have used such laws to aggressively exclude homeless people, Christenson says other cities have sought solutions through collaboration.  He hopes the latter occurs in Lexington.

Director Ginny Ramsey would like to see social service agencies like the Catholic Action Center excluded from any new nuisance ordinance.  However, council member Peggy Henson says such an exclusion would eliminate any incentive to correct problems created by such agencies for their neighbors.