ARLINGTON – For Nalini Margaitis, compliance has been a central focus of her job since she handled wage and hours investigations and criminal cases related to court-ordered restitution for the city of Denver, Colo.
In September, she traded in her labor law folders to become Arlington’s first full-time code compliance officer under the Community and Economic Development Department.
She will follow up on complaints from citizens about junk vehicles, piles of yard rubbish, overgrown lawns and other eyesore public nuisances that give Arlington neighborhoods a black eye and violate city codes.
With spring cleaning here, more homeowners sprucing up yards and cleaning out garages and closets, well-maintained property makes for a more attractive community.
“You should always be thinking about how your property looks,” Margaitis said. “We definitely notice that people are trying to clean up more.”
Prior to the budgeted full-time position, code enforcement was a shared backup duty for the Community and Economic director, and longtime staff members like Communications Manager Kristin Banfield, who did their time in the trenches fielding and following up on citizen complaints.
Banfield said spring is the time of year when city officials see a small spike in complaints. “People are outside more, so you’ll see a lot more complaints about exteriors,” she said.
Margaitis said the days of code enforcement being “when we could get to it” are over. “Now we’re making it more of a focus, making sure that the community knows that not only is the service available, but also what kind of requirements are out there to begin with.”
Banfield said goals for code compliance are to ensure that the community is looking good overall, and striving to leave a good first impression.
“An attractive community encourages that higher quality of life that we all appreciate here,” she said. “That spills over into higher property values, and the ability to buy and sell quickly. We are to the point now in Arlington where curb appeal is definitely important to neighbors.”
But, Margaitis reminded, “Our main goal is compliance with the Arlington Municipal Code.”
Title 11 in the code lists the numerous violations and abatement processes used to correct unsafe and unlawful conditions.
Besides vehicles inoperable or under repair, garbage and overgrown lawns on property, other nuisances include sign code violations; construction or building without a permit that encroaches on sensitive areas, green belts or wetlands; portable basketball hoops and skateboard ramps in streets or on sidewalks; and recreational vehicles being used for full-time living.
Margaitis said chickens are an issue this time of year, too. The city allows residents to keep seven hens housed with certain location restrictions, but roosters aren’t welcome.
An easy way to file and track a complaint that exists within city limits is the “Report a Concern” button on the city website at www.arlingtonwa.gov. Contactor names can be kept anonymous in documenting the issue. Residents can also call, email or visit a city office.
Margaitis said voluntary compliance, education and prevention are the preferred first steps to dealing with a public nuisance, which can sometimes be resolved after a single visit. “That’s the nice approach.”
When that doesn’t work, the city has an enforcement and appeals process that can impose civil and criminal penalties to ensure compliance.
When Margaitis investigates a complaint, she visits the property, takes photographs, assesses the situation and contacts the property owner.
Her first letter is a notice of voluntary correction that gives the owner 7-14 days to correct the violation. If the issue is taken care of, she closes the case, or gives an extension for situations where progress can be seen.
If the violation still exists beyond two weeks, she sends a second notice via certified mail, which has added teeth that usually gets results. The notice gives property owners 10 days to correct the complaint, along with 10 days to appeal the notice. It is also accompanied by fines of $100 per day the first five days, and $500 a day after that.
“At that point the owner might contact us and try to work out an arrangement and time extension,” Margaitis said. “We’ll work them if they reach out to us. If they don’t, then we can turn it over to our city attorney, and he will file a lawsuit.”
Margaitis said she responds to many types of complaints, but when it involves public health concerns, such as buildups of garbage that can draw rats, mice and other rodents, that’s to a point where the city takes action if they know about it.
“That’s where we really draw the line,” she said.
Other cases of an unsightly public nuisance turn out positive.
In one case in Arlington’s industrial area last year, a property with a large yard was covered with debris, an old camper, tall grass and weeds. The city worked with the property owners, and they got it cleaned up to the point today it’s well-kept.
Margaitis said that if they’re comfortable with it, neighbors can discuss resolving a nuisance issue with a neighbor in a friendly, rational way as a first attempt before contacting the city, but officials leave it to their own best judgment.
The city is getting an early jump promoting an upcoming Spring Cleanup Event from 10 a.m.3-p.m. June 8 at the west entrance of Arlington Airport, 188th St. NE. Residents who bring their utility billing statement will be able to get rid of items such as refrigerators, freezers, computers, TVs, printers, microwaves, tires, furniture and household debris, and other items. They cannot accept household hazardous waste, yard debris, household garbage, commercial garbage, personal documents for shredding or latex paint.