MADERA — What can a mountain area property owner do when a neighbor’s grass grows head high or a rusty old junker has been parked out front since the 1990s? Call the Madera County code enforcement department — or better yet, file a complaint online.
Madera County receives hundreds of citizen-generated complaints a year, according to Joe Trujillo, the County’s supervising code enforcement officer. In order to handle the complaints, the County employs Trujillo and three additional code enforcement officers.
The small, extremely active department has to cover a lot of ground — more than 2,100 square miles within Madera County’s boundaries. In 2018, the County received a total of 602 code enforcement-related complaints. “There were 438 cases initiated” from those complaints, Trujillo said.
So far in 2019, Madera County has initiated 207 responses to the 314 complaints the code enforcement department has received.
“Most of our complaints involve trash, junk and accumulated debris on private property that can be seen from public view or neighboring properties,” Trujillo said. “We also receive complaints regarding illegal encampments, inoperable, immobile, unregistered vehicles that are being stored on private property and recreational vehicles that are being used as permanent living space.”
The County does track complaints it receives by specific area.
“To date for 2019, ninety three cases have been initiated in eastern Madera County, with the majority of those cases being in the North Fork and Oakhurst communities,” Trujillo said.
What kinds of complaints does the county investigate and what determines whether code enforcement officers respond or sheriff’s deputies?
“Code Enforcement is responsible for enforcing the zoning code and any other possible violations of the Madera County code,” Trujillo explained. “The Sheriff’s Department enforces violations of the Penal and Motor Vehicle Code.”
Where is the department most active — geographically — and what are the most common complaints officers respond to?
“Our cases are spread throughout the county,” Trujillo said. “In the Valley, we are most active in the Chowchilla/Fairmead area. In the mountains, we are most active in North Fork and Oakhurst.”
Before sending officers out into the field, how does Trujillo determine whether a complaint warrants investigation?
“The circumstances and information provided in each complaint are reviewed for a possible violation and probable cause to inspect the property,” Trujillo notes. “Our processes for investigating complaints are much like those of law enforcement in that we need to have probable cause for investigating a property.
“After we receive a complaint and the complaint is reviewed, the case is assigned to a code enforcement officer.”
That officer’s caseload and the work priorities “will determine how soon they respond — unless the concern is an immediate health or safety issue.”
If the subject of the complaint is ultimately determined to be out of compliance, Trujillo explained, the County will ask that they voluntarily rectify the problem.
“After the violation has been verified by site inspection, the property owner is issued a ‘Notice of Violation’ (NOV) that requests their voluntary compliance in correcting the violation,” Trujillo explained. “If the property owner ignores the NOV, then we begin issuing administrative citations.”
“For each violation, the initial penalty is $250,” Trujillo said. “The second and third citation is $500 per violation and the penalty for any additional citations issued is $1,000.”
In some cases, citations may be issued for each day that the property remains in violation, Trujillo added.
“If the property owner continues to ignore our requests for compliance, then we process the case for special assessment by the Board of Supervisors.”
The code enforcement department also has the right to place a lien on a property if the owner continues to ignore citations.
In extreme cases, Trujillo said, a property owner could face the loss of their property via a tax lien sale if they ignore County requests to rectify the code enforcement issues.
“We aren’t looking to harass people or make their lives difficult,” Trujillo said. “We just want them to be responsible, to maintain their property and be good neighbors.”
For those considering filing a complaint with code enforcement, Madera County makes the process relatively simple.
“The County’s 311 system is the best way to submit a complaint,” Trujillo said.
During the last twelve months, Trujillo said the County has received 195 complaints via the online system.