New county law targets a long list of nuisance properties

Sheriff’s deputies can now get a court order to hold owners to account for crime and dereliction.

EVERETT — Police and prosecutors in Snohomish County are getting a suite of new enforcement tools to crack down on crime-ridden and derelict properties, after the County Council passed a new law Wednesday.

With hundreds of such trouble spots already on the sheriff’s office radar, it could take time to turn things around.

“This has been something that’s been needed for a very long time,” Sheriff Ty Trenary said.

The sheriff also cautioned that, “It won’t be an overnight fix.”

The ordinance passed 5-0. An amendment requires officials to provide quarterly updates on the enforcement effort.

The legislation attempts to give the county leverage for properties that have become havens for drug dealing, prostitution and storing stolen property. Other crimes that qualify as nuisances under the new law include animal cruelty, disorderly conduct and weapons violations. It applies to unincorporated areas.

The new enforcement powers would kick in after repeat offenses, such as authorities executing at least two court-ordered search warrants for drug offenses on the same property within a 12-month period. It would apply to houses or apartments with four or more documented nuisances within a 90-day period, or eight or more in a one-year period.

Nuisance properties are often owned by someone who has died or has become incapacitated. When it comes to properties in foreclosure, dealing with banks can be an obstacle for law enforcement.

“I think the next step as we go forward is to craft a way to hold big banks accountable so that they’re not leaving blights in our community,” Trenary said.

Councilman Nate Nehring said he was moved to propose the law after riding along with sheriff’s deputies in his north Snohomish County district.

“What I took away from the ride-along is that too often our law enforcement’s hands are tied,” Nehring said.

Several homeowners testified Wednesday about what it’s like to live next to a nuisance property.

Jim Welch was one of them. Welch, who said he’s in his late 50s, described moving to his once-quiet cul-de-sac in the Arlington area back in 1994. Problems at the house next door cropped up about five years ago, he said, after the owner reportedly died.

Since then, the longer-term neighbors have been subjected to a revolving cast of people living there. Welch said he’s had gasoline stolen out of vehicles parked in his yard, part of his cedar fence has been knocked down three times and motion-detector lights he installed to discourage people from prowling around his property were shot out. The next-door neighbors target shoot without a backstop and have even fired from inside the house.

“We live in constant fear for our families, especially the women and children,” he said.

Welch was hopeful about the new legislation, but understands the county’s resources will be stretched thin by hundreds of properties with similar issues.

“We greatly hope this legislation will help remedy our problem,” he said.

Under the new rules, a property owner or manager of a nuisance property could face a fine of up to $100 per day. For unpaid fines, the county could seek a lien.

The law will allow deputies to request a court order aimed at stopping chronic problems. Law enforcement officials could gain the right to inspect the property for compliance.

The court also could put owners on the hook for the county’s costs to abate problems. County-issued business licenses associated with nuisance properties could be revoked or suspended.

Any criminal cases against individuals would proceed separately in court.

The county’s Drug & Gang Task Force has a lead role on nuisance properties. Code enforcement, solid waste and health district officials address other problems that often show up in the same place. Among them: junkyard conditions, unpermitted buildings and illegally occupied motor homes.

The sheriff’s office has opened 301 cases on nuisance properties since 2014 through the task force, spokeswoman Shari Ireton said. As of earlier this month, 110 cases remained open.

Authorities plan to talk about the nuisance-property regulations at a press conference scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday in Smokey Point. They also plan to take the opportunity to discuss the expansion of the sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods to Arlington and Marysville.

The office pairs social workers with police. They fight crime, but also try to steer addicts and homeless people with mental illness into treatment and more stable living situations.

It started in south Snohomish County in 2015 and expanded to Monroe last year. Everett has a similar program.

Earlier this month, the new unit got to work in Arlington and Marysville through a partnership with the county. It includes an officer for each city and two embedded social workers.

Trenary is to be joined at the press conference by the mayors and police chiefs from the two cities.

Noah Haglund: nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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