The following is the entire thread (from August 25 through today) of my commentary about the Farmers Branch Code.

August 25, 2009

COMMENTARY
>>>From: Kat Holmes
Subject: State of the City
I am excited for the opportunity to do something constructive to help this city. I’ve lived here “forever,” and I hate to see the way it is going right now. Hopefully, we can steer our city back to the wonderful neighbor-friendly place it needs to be.
 
I am a Process Engineer and have worked with major military and defense contractors for many years. A significant part of my job was to author concise, factual and enforceable procedures and other documentation, so I appreciate the significance of properly written legal documents. Upon reading the city codes I see many errors, misinformation and missing details. I had toyed  with the idea of volunteering my services to clean these up, but was not  certain how to approach the correct parties. I have been speaking to my neighbors. Several have received code violation warnings. In addition to warnings for violations of codes that don’t exist, some of them are for storage in fenced backyards, out of view of the overly-sensitive citizens of Farmers Branch.

I created a spreadsheet to list the quick “Hit Sheet” violations with references to the applicable codes. In many cases there are no codes addressing alleged violations, in others the code is significantly different from the description on the Hit List. I still would like to know exactly what the city submitted as the award-winning, creative, innovative Proactive Code Enforcement entry to win that award. If they meant using the canned software: that’s stale, and their system is badly in need of a talented geek.
 
What I would expect like to see is a city that we can be proud of. But I cannot tolerate being treated like little children who need to be scolded and punished.

August 31, 2009

FOLLOW up
>>>From: Jim Olk, City of Farmers Branch Building Official
Subject: State of the City Commentary  –  A Response
The City’s Code Enforcement Program has received numerous recognitions with the most recent, a national recognition of excellence for innovation in local government.  The City’s Code Enforcement Program is a dynamic proactive program that uses property condition surveys combined with performance measures and proactive code enforcement to respond to changing conditions in the City.  Since 1995, the City has routinely surveyed housing and property conditions to get an overall snapshot of the condition of the City.  Using the survey results and performance measures the program dynamically increases the intensity of proactive patrols in neighborhoods that reflect downward trends in property maintenance and appearance.  The programs success is reflected in improved housing and property conditions in some of the most challenging neighborhoods in Farmers Branch.  The basic premise of using property condition surveys, strategic planning, performance measures and proactive code enforcement, developed by the City of Farmers Branch, is nationally recognized as a best practice model for code enforcement programs.  (Chapter 18 of the Building Department Administration 3rd Edition published by the International Code Council)
 
Ms. Holmes refers to a “Hit Sheet” and enforcement of “codes that don’t exist.”  I can assure you that all correction notices that are sent out to the residents of Farmers Branch are backed by ordinances or codes that address those issues.  We have over 100 case types in our code enforcement tracking system and those just cover the basic violations that are found around the City.  There are thousands of violations or issues that are covered by the City’s adopted codes and regulations and all of them address the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Farmers Branch as well as the general public.  
 
For the 14 years that I have worked for the City of Farmers Branch, I have been impressed with the foresight that each of the City Councils’ have possessed with regards to the maintaining property values and the importance of proactive property maintenance.  I truly feel had they not had that foresight the City would have slum or blighted neighborhoods in Farmers Branch rather than the desired living environment that is currently enjoyed.
 
If Ms. Holmes or any resident of Farmers Branch has questions regarding our code enforcement program, I would encourage them to contact me at 972-919-2533 or jim.olk@farmersbranch.info   I am always willing to look at ways to make the program more effective or more efficient.

KNOTE for more, see http://www.farmersbranch.info/live/code-enforcement

September 8, 2009

Mr. Olk,

The elected members of a City Council are trusted to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the city who elected them. What I am seeing is a group of persons who have lost track of the fact that this city is comprised of individual human beings, with distinct families, hopes, dreams, and ideas. Farmers Branch has always been a middle-class community and that is the very reason that most of us chose to live here. But it appears that a few people have decided that we want to be something we’re not, and the way to achieve that is by bullying everyone to comply with many rules that, quite frankly, appear to have been devised by a group with other than the community health, safety and welfare in mind. Perhaps I am wrong, and I would be happy if I were, but perception is important, and from what I am hearing from my neighbors the perception is that the City Council has taken Code Enforcement tactics to an unprecedented low.

The following are my replies to your statements (your statements in bold italics):

  • Ms. Holmes refers to a “Hit Sheet” and enforcement of “codes that don’t exist”. I can assure you that all correction notices that are sent out to the residents of Farmers Branch are backed by ordinances or codes that address those issues.

The Farmers Branch City Code is very difficult to find on the website, and even harder to interpret.

As I stated in my commentary, the “Hit List” is rife with misleading statements, which lead to misunderstanding, frustration, distrust, and, ultimately, push-back.

For instance, the “Hit List” encourages people to complain about weeds and grass that are over 8” tall (Section 56-81) yet Section 34-287 of the code states:

Sec. 34-287.  Unsightly weeds and vegetation.

(a) It shall be unlawful for any person owning, claiming, occupying or having supervision or control of any real property, occupied or unoccupied, within the corporate limits of the city, to permit grass, weeds or brush to grow to a greater height than 12 inches upon any such real property, or allow any objectionable or unsightly matter to remain upon such property

(b)   All vegetation not regularly cultivated and which exceeds 12 inches in height shall be presumed to be objectionable and unsightly, except that regularly cultivated crops will not be allowed to grow within the right-of-way of any public street or easement but shall be kept mowed the same as provided in subsection (a) of this section.      (Code 1969, § 17-100)

Am I to read that regularly cultivated crops are not allowed to grow over 12 inches tall? That will be disturbing to anyone who wants to cultivate a Victory Garden containing corn or tomatoes.

…. Or is that only crops that I grow in the right-of-way of any public street or easement?

By the way: what is the right-of-way of any public street or easement? Where is that defined … in a manner that the layman can understand?

Let’s go on to the Front Yard. (Again, I cannot find a definitive description of “Front, Back, and Side” Yards.) The Hit List says:

Items in the Front Yard

Too many statutes, (sic) bird baths, lawn furniture, flower pots with no or dead plants or other items in the front yard of a home. 

After a long and arduous list of permitted and non-permitted items The Code comes down to:

The maximum number of objects or items of either lawn furniture or freestanding statuary permitted in residential front yards at any one time shall not exceed five, and that the total area such objects may occupy shall be limited to a maximum of 100 square feet.

Now, the phrase “either lawn furniture or freestanding statuary” is the catch here. According to Wikipedia, statuary is plural for statue, which is defined as:

A statue is a sculpture in the round representing a person or persons, an animal, or an event, normally full-length, as opposed to a bust, and at least close to life-size, or larger. Its primary concern is representational.

In addition, the idea that statues are considered separately from other items is reinforced in the city code because the code takes the trouble to distinguish “statuaries” from lawn ornaments  such as columns, bird baths and pedestals, in this portion of the same section:

(2)   Freestanding statuaries, columns, bird baths and pedestals not exceeding 72 inches in height.

Therefore, the entire sentence, after getting rid of the gobbledygook – can be interpreted thusly:

“You are allowed a maximum of either 5 items of furniture, or 5 statues” – no mention of anything else. Yet the Hit List encourages citizens to complain about anything and everything in a person’s front yard that is not a tree, bush, or flower: and those can be complained about elsewhere.

Besides the pesky details of interpretation, please explain how more than 5 items of lawn furniture or whatever are detrimental to the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens.

While we’re on the subject of front yards: where is that definition? I suppose it’s layered in some reference manual tucked away at City Hall: I’m going to guess Building Department Administration 3rd Edition published by the International Code Council.

In fact, I see that many of the codes reference adoption of some standard, which is fine, but where can the average citizen obtain this information? How can WE be proactive, or is that only for the governing bodies? Are we to run down to City Hall and borrow a Reference Book every time a picket falls off our fence, or when a grandkid proudly presents us with a flower pot?

  • We have over 100 case types in our code enforcement tracking system and those just cover the basic violations that are found around the City. There are thousands of violations or issues that are covered by the City’s adopted codes and regulations and all of them address the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of Farmers Branch as well as the general public.

Wow! Over 100 “basic” case types, and thousands of violations or issues? I’ll check with other cities, but this seems awfully excessive. Perhaps we are being a bit too sensitive.

In fact, 48% of the citizens say there is no change in the community, even after Code Enforcement stepped up their efforts. (Reference “No Place Like Home” by Karen Olsson: May 2008 issue of The Texas Monthly, which notes that 9,724 violation notices were issued last year in a city of 8,000 single-family homes).

Could it be maybe, just maybe, the citizens themselves are doing a good job – in spite of the aggressive bullying tactics?

  • The City’s Code Enforcement Program has received numerous recognitions with the most recent, a national recognition of excellence for innovation in local government.”

I hear about all the awards being bestowed upon the city – but none of the details: How did WE earn the “national recognition of excellence for innovation in local government”? What is it the City Council is telling other organizations about OUR city? It is our right to know.

  • The City’s Code Enforcement Program is a dynamic proactive program that uses property condition surveys combined with performance measures and proactive code enforcement to respond to changing conditions in the City.
  • Since 1995 the City has routinely surveyed housing and property conditions to get an overall snapshot of the condition of the City. Using the survey results and performance measures the program dynamically increases the intensity of proactive patrols in neighborhoods that reflect downward trends in property maintenance and appearance.

Your response cites surveys and performance measures. Where is that data? The only survey on the website is a random telephone survey: the 2008 Citizen Satisfaction Survey.

The intent of the 2008 survey is described thusly: “The City of Farmers Branch was interested in determining citizen attitudes, opinions and needs in order to assist the city in developing policy, budget and service decisions.” 

While most of the questions dealt with opinions of the library; parks and recreation; streets; quality of street sweeping services; police, fire, and ambulance services; garbage collection; recycling; and communication (media services) there were a couple of pertinent points:

  • A majority of respondents said that tall weeds/grass, abandoned vehicles, graffiti and dilapidated buildings were not a problem in their neighborhood
  • Respondents were split on whether their neighborhood looks better today than it did one year ago. (48% said it looks better while 48% said it looks the same).

 Lacking data that shows that the citizens considered these things to be problems in the past, how can these observations lead to the conclusion that “These statistics indicate the Code Enforcement Department is doing a good job at controlling these problems.”?

  • Since 1995 the City has routinely surveyed housing and property conditions to get an overall snapshot of the condition of the City. Using the survey results and performance measures the program dynamically increases the intensity of proactive patrols in neighborhoods that reflect downward trends in property maintenance and appearance.

Although I appreciate the fact that the city hired a professional market research organization to conduct and interpret the survey I will withhold my opinion, except to point out that a survey is only as effective as the questions asked, the sampling of persons responding, and the correct interpretation of the answers. This survey only shows the data and the interpretation. For instance, what were the questions? I tend to agree with Mark Twain’s observation that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

I do question the statement that “These statistics are representative of the demographics of the City of Farmers Branch”. Witness the demographics data as reported in the survey vs. that reported on the internet (Yahoo! Real Estate).

Length lived in Farmers Branch:
< 2 years  3.3%
2 to 5 years     9.8%
6 to 10 years 21.3%
11 to 20 years 23.0%
> 20 years   41.8%
Demographics

Survey

  Yahoo! Real Estate
Typical age

52 years

 

36 years

Mean household income

$74,550

 

$62,113

Gender Male

36%

 

50.7%

Female

64%

 

49.2%

Housing Statistics

 

 

 

Own Home

85%

 

64.46%

Rent

14%

 

30.53%

Home Type

 

 

 

single family home

83%

 

 

apartment

9%

 

 

townhome/condo

7%

 

 

Age of children in the household:
0 to 5 years old   12.0%
6 to 10 years old  13.5%
11 to 13 years old  13.0%
14 to 19 years old       12.0%
No children under 20  66.5%
Ethnicity
Caucasian 73.5%
African Am. 2.0%
Hispanic   17.0%
Asian    0.8%
Other    1.3%

 

 

 

 

  • The programs success is reflected in improved housing and property conditions in some of the most challenging neighborhoods in Farmers Branch. The basic premise of using property condition surveys, strategic planning, performance measures and proactive code enforcement, developed by the City of Farmers Branch, is nationally recognized as a best practice model for code enforcement programs. (Chapter 18 of the Building Department Administration 3rd Edition published by the International Code Council)
  • …….. the desired living environment that is currently enjoyed.

Okay – everybody has seen a drop in home values in the past year, so we won’t even dwell on that, but Farmer’s Branch has also seen a nearly 4% reduction in population. So much for the desired living environment.

Based on Mr. Olk’s statement that “proactive code enforcement policies have been in effect since 1995”, one could come to the conclusion that aggressive code enforcement  has had minimal impact on the city – although considering the developments in the past year that may change, and not for the better.

The average Citizen’s trust of government has been at an abysmal low for some time now, and lack of communication only reinforces that distrust. If you were really proud of all these achievements you should be singing from the rooftops: proudly displaying data and trend charts. As it is, the City Council’s silence and actions speak volumes.

Advertisements