Regardless of the ultimate decision made on proposed changes to property maintenance rules, the end result will have to work for all Dawson County residents, speaker Lance Carruth said to the Board of Commissioners on May 18.
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“This county is changing. It is growing, and you guys and ladies have the difficult responsibility of managing that growth,” Carruth said. “My grandfather told me once that change is happening, no matter whether you like it or you don't. He said, ‘If you don't get ahead of it, it’ll run over you like a steamroller. I hope that you guys and gals are able to get in front of this change and this growth to keep it from running over this county like a steamroller.”
The board unanimously voted Thursday to extend Dawson County’s moratorium on the rollout of its property maintenance ordinance and some related solid waste provisions for an unspecified amount of time.
Dawson County commissioners originally enacted an ordinance moratorium on Feb. 16.
That wasn’t the only moratorium the county has put into place in recent months. After 10 months, the county’s moratorium on most residential rezoning applications has expired since public officials wrapped up changes to local land use provisions, too.
Since there was not a need to extend the rezoning moratorium, another hearing wasn’t held for it, said county attorney Angela Davis.
Although public opinion on the matter stayed split, more people came out Thursday to speak in favor of the proposed property maintenance rules as compared to the February meeting.
“The question is whether the county should use the police power of the state to force people to beautify their property, and that's a very serious question."Dawson County resident Perry Betterton
“Thomas Jefferson said, ‘A wise and frugal government who shall restrain men from injuring one another shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread that is earned…it’s not the role of the government to make sure the entire county looks like a homeowner’s association,” said speaker Perry Betterton..
While Betterton pointed out what were in his view problematic provisions for cosmetic property features, he said his complaint was “more so with the overall mindset” of the proposed changes.
“If you think that property rights are granted by the government, you shouldn't call yourself Republican, conservative or even an American,” Betterton said.
“The question is whether the county should use the police power of the state to force people to beautify their property, and that's a very serious question,” he added.
Speaker James Brewer called the ordinance “critical to the future of Dawson County” in terms of people’s safety and wellbeing, especially for any housing that’s “unfit for human habitation.”
“Some of these houses are structurally deficient. Some of these houses are known to have no septic system,” Brewer said. “Failure to enforce this ordinance will allow slumlords to prey on underprivileged families and threaten the safety of all the people in the community. Failure to enforce it could also lead to lawsuits against the county, with people hurt by defective construction or low septic tank standards.”
Brewer gave a nod to property rights while clarifying that he doesn’t have the right to devalue his neighbors’ property.
“It’s the responsibility of the government to protect and ensure the general welfare of the people and the county,” said Brewer. This is your opportunity to do so.”
District 4 commissioner Emory Dooley ultimately made the motion to extend the moratorium on the property maintenance rules.
“I believe there are some substantial changes that need to be made to this ordinance. I think a lot of the outside storage needs to be removed and just tailor it [to] where it’s only for public health and safety issues,” Dooley said.
He added that there “shouldn’t be an eye test” where people get to individually judge whether or not something’s right on a person’s property but mentioned keeping the language about unfit structures.
Before his remarks, District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines noted that the people speaking were split four for and four against the proposed rule changes.
“Not only do we live in a great community where we can have this dialogue back and forth and it's our responsibility to try to balance it out,” said Gaines, “ but a common thread that I heard on both sides was to protect life, health and safety issues. That was [with people] both for and against it.”
“The aspect of the government coming onto your property and saying what looks good and what doesn't look good…falls outside of the scope of what we should be doing,” Gaines added, “but I think the life-safety points are valid points to take into consideration.”
Like the other board members, Gaines reiterated county officials’ responsibility to take public input from Thursday with them while the property maintenance and related rules are being updated.
“There are things that were not intended the way that it was rolled out…and I’ll apologize publicly to the public for being a part of that process because it wasn't intended that way,” Gaines added.
“Public health and safety isn't an opinionated test…we don't need an opinion on this. We need something set in stone that will protect [people’s] health and safety."District 1 Commissioner Seth Stowers
District 3 Commissioner Alexa Bruce, who attended remotely, agreed with her colleagues that the current draft of the property maintenance rules “doesn’t satisfy or please anyone at the moment.”
Bruce joined in calling it a “big overreach” but highlighted what she called “very valid points” that come from the county’s waste management ordinance and that she thought the board “would be failing you as a community if we took [them] out.”
“We need to make sure we’re not passing something again that we’re not fully understanding what it says ourselves and we make sure that the intent…comes to fruition,” Bruce said.
“There are health issues and public safety issues that have to be addressed,” Thurmond said. “I don’t think anybody is against addressing either one of those particular things. But we have to get that right so everybody has an understanding that it’s truly a public safety issue [and] it’s truly a public health issue.”
He mentioned the county’s duty to protect property rights while upholding their mandate to maintain public health and safety for county citizens.
“It’s time to go back and look back at every word and make sure we’re attuned to those two issues,” Thurmond said.
“Public health and safety isn't an opinionated test…we don't need an opinion on this. We need something set in stone that will protect [people’s] health and safety,” District 1 Commissioner Seth Stowers said.
Thurmond also wanted the board to look at how county officials could incorporate language into the maintenance ordinance for elderly or disabled people who have a public safety or health issue and need help cleaning up their property.
“It’s not the goal of the board to come to your house and say you have to pay a fine,” Thurmond said. “If you can't even afford to do what you would do anyways if you could, getting the fine from the magistrate court ain’t going to help the situation.”
So at least part of the solution could lie in figuring out how to help people who would follow the property maintenance rules but can't afford to do it, the chairman added.
DCN will continue to follow developments on Dawson County’s property maintenance rules.