Exactly what constitutes a trash heap in rural El Paso County is, mostly, in the eye of the beholder.
That's because the county's code concerning junked cars, tire graveyards and dangerous piles of trash is both obsolete and dismayingly vague, according to top officials.
The Board of County Commissioners is considering a variety of solutions, including toughening the code and expanding the county's involvement -- options certain to cause a backlash among citizens who think their property rights are being trampled.
"I'm willing to battle that one, if need be," said County Commissioner Dennis Hisey, who represents a district south of Colorado Springs known for junk complaints.
A right to know your accuser
"The code is obsolete," said Terry Harris, the county administrator. "Just pure-and-simple obsolete."
Currently, Harris noted, the county has only two code enforcement agents and can afford only to chase complaints filed by citizens.
"We don't go looking for problems," he said. "If we went looking, we'd find more than we're able to handle."
As a result, he said, piles of garbage and debris that can create mosquito breeding grounds, oil spills and other health, safety and environmental problems are given a free pass.
But the county's current anonymous complaint system has caused controversy, with cited property owners claiming they have a right to know their accusers.
Charged with coming up with a better way, Imad Karaki, assistant director of the county's Development Services Department -- formerly known as the Planning Department -- will unveil an admittedly ambitious plan to the commission during its July 21 meeting.
Under Karaki's plan, once 10 citizens sign a petition citing a trash violation, the county will host a public forum involving multiple county departments, including the sheriff's office and the Department of Health and Environment. There, entire neighborhoods can discuss problems in the open.
Although Karaki said the county could activate the new system with a modest $25,000 budget, others such as Harris remained skeptical that solutions to the problem would come cheaply.
County commissioners interviewed said the biggest challenge would be to craft the code so that it's more effective.
Hisey said expanding county inspection powers is a potential solution.
"If there's any way to do that legally," he said, "I'd be willing to look at that. Personal property rights only go so far as they're not a detriment to a neighbor's property."
Douglas Bruce, commissioner for eastern El Paso County, said the vagueness of the code as written welcomes abuse by government, and he would oppose any move to expand county powers. The commissioner, whose own rental properties have come under attack as eyesores, said he'd like to eliminate violations issued for appearance. He also opposes anonymous complaints, which he calls "the hallmark of a police state."
Other community observers said that commissioners should be cautious if they don't want a huge backlash.
"Expanding code enforcement doesn't work," said former county commissioner Betty Beedy, who incited rage against bringing zoning to eastern El Paso County during the 1990s.
Though she lost that debate in 1999, she views code enforcement law as a failure. Rubbish still collects on lawns, she said, while code enforcement law hampers citizens' efforts to run businesses.
"We [don't] want more government interference," Beedy said.
-- Dan Wilcock