SOUTH PORTLAND – The South Portland City Council voted unanimously Monday to adopt in first reading an ordinance update that will make it easier to take legal action against two property owners whose yards have become something more than a mere eyesore to neighbors.

According to Pat Doucette, director of code enforcement for the city, 33 property owners came forward this past spring to complain about the condition of the two lots, each described variously as “a dump” and “a total disaster.”

New rules due for final adoption at the Oct. 15 council meeting give the city “more teeth” to force a court-ordered cleanup, including fines that could range as high as $2,500 per day, per violation.

People living near the two lots say they are concerned not only about the declining aesthetics in their neighborhoods, but also the falling value of their homes.

At a Sept. 24 workshop, April Tracy said she has been unable to sell a home she owns on Columbus Avenue because nobody wants to live around the corner from the property at 90 Anthoine St., owned by Gordon and Patricia Whittemore.

“Everybody loves our house,” said Tracy. “But then they say they’d never live in this neighborhood because of that other house.”

Meanwhile, a number of others companied about property belonging to Craig Patterson, at 119/125 Wythburn Road. These included former Kirkland Avenue resident James Wallace, who claimed he took a $10,000 bath on the sale of his home, because of its proximity to the Patterson home.

Under South Portland’s general nuisance ordinance, any 10 neighbors living on lots within 500 feet of an offending property can petition to have the city take action. Last spring, 10 homeowners signed a petition against the Whittemores and 23 took action against Patterson.

But according to Doucette, there was nothing she could do. At the Sept. 24 workshop she passed around pictures of both properties, each showing varying degrees of apparent refuse strewn about the yards. While unsightly, nothing in the pictures violates the city’s nuisance law as written. Last updated in 1966, the law deals primarily with things like open wells and automobile “graveyards.”

After repeated calls to the property owners asking for a bit of tidying when unanswered, Doucette began working two months ago to update the ordinance, alongside City Manager Jim Gailey and Sally Daggett, the city attorney.

“I want this thing to have some teeth,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher, taking the side of more than a dozen residents who turned out at the Sept. 24 workshop.

“I don’t want to play these games and I don’t want to live in your neighborhood,” she added, after reviewing Doucette’s photographs.

However, Daggett tried to throttle back expectations, at both last week’s workshop and at Monday’s regular meeting.

“The city doesn’t want to be regulating aesthetic conditions,” she said. “There has to be some condition that exists on the property that poses a public health or safety issue. We don’t want to be, say, regulating how high someone’s grass is.”

Still, the proposal does appear to give the city some room for interpretation. It defines a nuisance as “allowing the discharge of toxic or noxious materials,” but also, “the outdoor storage of any worn out, broken or worthless item” for more than 15 days. Those standards would apply throughout the city, regardless of zoning.

While the complaint of a nuisance may be brought to the City Council by “any city official,” a petition also may be delivered by at least 10 residents living within 500 feet of the aggrieving property, as in the original 1966 version. However the council becomes aware of a potential nuisance property, the ordinance proposal calls on it to conduct a public hearing and, if the council agrees, to issue an order giving the property owner 15 days to clean up the lot.

After that, the issue goes to the courts, which could access fines.

“That’s what gets property owners to clean the property up,” said Daggett. “That’s the hammer you have.”

Neither Patterson nor the Whittemores could be reached for comment Tuesday. Doucette said she does not believe either party is aware of the petitions filed against them. However, if the council does adopt the ordinance changes, as appears likely, enforcement will begin 20 days later, once the new ordinance goes into effect.

Still, Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis questioned how the new language might be interpreted. For example, she said, an old washing machine repurposed as a planter might seem ugly to some, but quaint to others. Either way, she noted, it would not likely rise to the requisite public safety concern cited by Daggett.

“I guess you’re going to find out real quick if this language will hold up,” said Doucette, adding that she would proceed using the petitions signed under the existing ordinance.

“I don’t believe for a moment that those petitions would have to be redone,” she said.

While most residents at Monday’s meeting expressed support for the update, and subsequently imminent enforcement action, there were some naysayers.

Tanner Street resident Gary Crosby said that while he is normally “a property rights guy,” he thought the proposal made “good sense.” However, he questioned how the city might proceed against residents whose properties have fallen into disrepair only because they are infirm or indigent. He wondered if it would be fair to access fines against someone who can’t afford the city’s demolition fee. However, Gailey said other administrative updates are in the offing, including one that resets the demo fee from a percentage of assessed value to a flat $25.

Stronger in her comments was Sawyer Street resident Linda French.

“I can see why some people are concerned, but I have a concern on the opposite side,” she said. “You put something like this through and you are opening the door to an awful lot of worms on what is considered a nuisance. You look at every aspect of our lives. From the federal government on down, individual rights are being taken.

“What concerns me is, every time you confine one set of people, you take away rights from someone else,” she said.

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