Nevadans have spent a good deal of time talking about property upkeep and city beautification via social media this summer. And one thing is clear, not everyone agrees on what defines a well-kept property or a beautiful neighborhood. Some say they don’t have enough money to keep their property looking nice; while others argue that if you buy a property, having the funds to maintain it is your responsibility. For many, maintenance isn’t about having a stunning, first-class or perfect home as much as it is about keeping the yard mowed, pulling unsightly weeds and keeping junk from piling up around the house or in the yard.
It might surprise many Nevada residents to know that when the Nevada City Council chose a new administrator for the community and hired Matthew Mardesen, who began his duties here early this year, one of the considerations they had in choosing Mardesen was his strong background in nuisance abatement issues. Mardesen said this very issue was the main part of his presentation to the council during the interview process.
“One of my big tasks in Monroe (where he came from) was cleanup. We had a lot of properties that needed cleanup,” Mardesen said.
He worked with a south central Iowa city managers group on learning more about the issues that go along with community cleanup, and also drew from his background in law enforcement, to become enough of an “expert” on the topic that he’s been called upon, to this day, to help other communities with the issue. Nearby Collins and Colo have both asked for and received his input.
Heading into fall happens to be a good time to publicize this issue, Mardesen said, because Nevada is about to tackle it head on.
Since Mardesen came, he’s had one main officer in the Nevada Public Safety Department working his way through the community and surveying all properties to identify problems. “This canvass of the whole community, from a nuisance abatement standpoint, was needed so that we’re all on the same playing field,” Mardesen said. The canvassing is nearly complete, with only the northern-most part of town still needing to be looked at, he said.
As of Aug. 7, 125 properties were identified as having nuisance issues. Of the 125 notices sent out, Mardesen reported that only four citations have been given. The others have all made progress on the issues that were outlined in their notices. When completed, Mardesen predicted, the city will likely take action on seven to eight properties in the community. Before getting to what is involved in that process, Mardesen explains why this issue is important to any community.
Why is this important?
“First off, one of the critical things in any community is that first impression. It’s important to take a look at what a community looks like to those who’ve never been in it before,” Mardesen said.
Marc Olson, who is a local Real Estate Broker in Nevada, knows property upkeep something Realtors are very aware of. He points out that overgrown lawns, clutter, multiple cars parked off of the driveway, fallen tree branches and poorly maintained home exteriors of neighboring properties “can potentially negatively affect the view of an appraiser when trying to complete an appraisal of a property.”
Mardesen said in the city canvass of properties, they are looking at things like junk cars, junk items in a yard, dilapidated buildings or sheds on a property, trash left standing and starting to cause a smell, and overgrown grass and weeds. “These are issues that are really detrimental to the value of the property and those around it. You want to make sure you are maintaining property values, which is important for the taxing entity and fair to all property owners around each property,” he said.
The process to clean up some properties, Mardesen said, takes time. And one thing that’s very important in dealing with these matters is to give a property owner adequate time to make improvements. In fact, seeing progress is an important thing on a lot of the properties that have problems.
Another thing, Mardesen points out, is that when any neighbor complains about a property in their neighborhood, the city needs to look at it and address the issue. “If someone is taking the time to bring (a problem) to us, then it’s important to them that we take the time to look at it,” he said.
Sometimes, there’s an issue that the city can address. Sometimes, it’s just a different opinion of someone, when there really isn’t an issue from a nuisance abatement standpoint. Even Olson realizes “the perception of what is unsightly varies by neighborhood, and every individual has their own opinion.”
Mardesen said there are even people out there who think that 657A.10A, which is the Iowa Code section that deals with property abandonment issues, is an overreach of government. And while Mardesen respects that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, he said the laws are there for a reason. He hates that the nuisance abatement issues can sometimes morph into the abandonment process, but it’s necessary for the city to be in charge of protecting a community’s value and every property owner’s value with these laws.
“This is a process you have to address, because if you are trying to impress anybody or companies through economic development, they look at these things,” he said.
Nuisance abatement and the abandonment processes are tedious and time-consuming, and it’s necessary in a community like Nevada to have a team to work on it. Mardesen will join the Nevada Public Safety Department and call in the head of the city’s building and zoning department as they work together to start to take action this fall.
“The last thing we want to do is come in and tear somebody’s house down,” Mardesen said. For those who want to make changes and improve properties that are falling apart or needing work to be up to code, Mardesen said there are resources, like the Story County Housing Trust Fund, which Nevada has joined. “We’ve got some good programs that can help, especially for those people who are going through hard times.”
But for those who just don’t want do anything, a very detailed process will ensue, and Mardesen has it outlined very well. After there is a complaint and/or issues that have been identified, an investigation starts. Then, the property owner will be notified of the problems, and that notification, Mardesen said, usually includes a letter with photos of the problems that are being identified. Mardesen emphasizes that it is important, in this letter, to let the property owner know that if they feel their property is not in violation, they can file a written request for a hearing. “We want to give them a chance to argue this and to try to be fair,” he said. The letter goes on to state the expectations to remedy the issue(s) and a deadline for compliance with a re-inspection date listed. The letters are personally delivered by the police, so there can be no possibility that it wasn’t received.
If a property owner is noncompliant, a re-inspection of the property will occur and a three-day notice letter will be issued, with another re-inspection date. From there, the city moves to a “checklist” of items to determine if a property has been abandoned, and then forwards documentation to the city attorney to proceed with the abandonment process.
Mardesen shares the document he uses as a checklist for a property that has been abandoned. It includes 14 different areas to be filled out, such as checking into whether the taxes on the property are current; whether utilities are being provided and/or paid for at the property; whether the property has past due accounts for water, sewer and garbage; descriptions of all the buildings on the property; whether anyone is living on the property; etc.
The investment of time on the city’s part is no small thing, he said, but he shares a few snapshots of properties that he’s worked on in other communities, and shows the increased annual tax revenue that is received by all taxing bodies when an abandoned property is dealt with and torn down, and then a new residential property is erected. “Usually, it takes about three to four years before expenses are recovered from the initial cost of processing the abandonment issue through the legal system to when you start making money on that improvement,” he said, making it well worth it for the taxing bodies and for the neighborhood that now has better value.
As a Realtor, Olson said his office, the local RE/MAX office in Nevada, has tried to do its part to inspire property upkeep by starting a Yard of the Month contest for three months each summer and recognizing those who do a good job on keeping up their properties.
He encourages all homeowners and property owners to try to find a few minutes to focus on their exteriors. “In the summer, mow and pull a few weeds. In the winter, make sure your driveway and sidewalk are shoveled. If you have time … along with mowing, trim the hedges, weed the flower beds, get rid of dead trees and shrubs, get rid of any broken lawn furniture and rake your yard in the fall,” Olson said.
“The exterior of your home should be as uncluttered in appearance as the interior. A good power washing of the exterior surface is a good starting point. Touching up your paint can do wonders for the exterior of a home, as well…,” Olson continued.
“Taking care of your yard and your home, typically creates a sense of pride and accomplishment in ownership,” Olson said.
And taking care of a community, as Mardesen puts it, that’s part of a city’s job.