DeLand has hired a code-enforcement manager and plans to become more proactive in enforcing city codes that prohibit, for example, overgrown grass, trashy properties and making improvements without building permits.
Until now, DeLand has been “reactive” in its code enforcement, meaning city staff would investigate if someone complained about a property. A more “proactive” approach means staff members themselves will go out looking for violations.
As DeLand has grown, so have complaints about derelict and neglected properties. As of June 26, DeLand’s code-enforcement department had received 361 complaints this year — more than two per day.
That’s a lot for a three-person department to investigate. That’s why Richard Lovett was hired June 5; before that, DeLand Chief Building Official Joe Levrault had been helping out.
Lovett, a DeLand resident, comes from the City of Deltona, where he worked as Deltona’s assistant director of code compliance.
“I am looking forward to working with the citizens, business owners and employees of DeLand,” Lovett told The Beacon.
The growth in complaints has been significant.
“It is a third more calls than through the same time frame from last year,” Levrault said.
“The city is showing a rise in the number of calls for service with the growing population of the area.”
Even as it moves into proactive mode, Levrault said, the city will stick with an educational rather than a “big stick” approach.
“This change will be done to broaden the city’s emphasis toward educating the residents on the ordinances, while providing a soft-hand approach,” Levrault said. “Proactive code enforcement can help with crime (broken-window theory) by working with the citizens to help stabilize and improve the blighted areas. Improving neighborhoods increases the value of their property and the appeal to want to live in those neighborhoods.”
The “broken window theory” originated in a 1982 article that argued that visible signs of crime or blight in an area will, if unfixed, lead to more crime and blight.
Even with an educational or “soft-hand” approach, the process of code enforcement can be frustrating, both for the city enforcers and the property owners. Some properties come to the city’s attention again and again, for example, and some property owners struggle to fix problems despite earnest efforts.
Take the case of one Spring Hill-area property owner, for example. He was cited for renovating a house without getting the proper permits first.
According to the minutes from the hearing on his property, where a fine of $250 a day was proposed, the property owner “stated that he has applied for permits for the windows, electrical, mechanical and plumbing. Also stated the City told him he does not need a permit for the flooring and the cabinets. He asked the City for compassion and requested an extension. He previously hired two different contractors that walked off the job. [He] also stated ‘this is why there are mass shootings.’”
The magistrate denied the extension, and imposed a $250-per-day fine, beginning immediately.
Code enforcement can shed light on the difficult circumstances of our neighbors’ lives, too. In July 2022, the code-enforcement magistrate presided over a case of trash and too-tall weeds in a yard in northeast DeLand.
The property owner told the magistrate that her husband had died of COVID, then she was hospitalized with COVID, and she had hired someone to maintain the lawn while she was unable to, but that person didn’t do the work.
The magistrate gave her another 30 days to get the problem resolved, or face a $150-a-day fine.
According to The Beacon’s review of a year’s worth of code-enforcement actions, only a small percentage of the 361 complaints received in 2023 actually rise to the level of a hearing before the City of DeLand’s special magistrate for code enforcement.
Magistrates listen to testimony from city employees and from property owners to determine whether to levy fines against property owners whose properties have been found to be in violation of one city code or another.
Over the year we studied, the magistrate presided over cases involving 58 properties. One or more fines were imposed on the owners of 15 of those properties.
Fines range from $100 a day to $500 a day, depending on the type and severity of the violation and whether it’s a first-time or repeat problem. Property owners may have more than one fine imposed; for example, one fine for tootall weeds, and another for junk vehicles parked on the property.
The money the city gets from those fines goes right back into its general fund, the city’s main operating budget. A fine is actually a lien on the property. If a fine goes unpaid for a long time, the city has the option to foreclose on the property to force the property’s sale, and be paid from the proceeds.
Even with increasing complaints, Levrault said, DeLand isn’t having a code-enforcement emergency. The new hire will allow the city to shift to a more proactive approach rather than a reactive one.
— Beacon publisher Barb Shepherd contributed to this story.