Clay commissioners spar over potential anti-blight ordinance

Article Courtesy of The Jacksonville Times-Union

By Teresa Stepzinski

Published June 24, 2016


A Clay County commissioner’s initiative seeking a potential ordinance cracking down on dilapidated houses, burned-out buildings and other blighted eyesore structures in unincorporated areas countywide created a kerfuffle involving his fellow elected officials.

Clay doesn’t have an anti-blight ordinance with an enforcement process right now. Commissioner Wayne Bolla citing complaints about boarded-up rundown structures in his district — including the unincorporated Oakleaf and Orange Park areas — asked county staff to look into what could be done to address the problem, which can affect public safety and the value of neighboring properties.


In response, staff presented potential regulations June 14 to the commission for discussion and direction. If approved, the proposed regulations currently detailed in the draft code would mandate that all buildings or structures — both existing and new — be maintained in a safe and sanitary condition. The code’s focus would be unsafe buildings, according to the potential ordinance.

A bit of a commission brouhaha broke out after Bolla explained his intent and reasonings for initiating the potential measure.

“I’m not jumping up and down saying we ought to tear everything down. I would prefer to see them refurbished and rehabilitated. But if the owners of the buildings aren’t willing to do that, we need to have a final remedy here. And this addresses that issue,” Bolla said of the potential Property Safety and Maintenance Code.

Bolla cited the charred ruins of a house on Maple Lane gutted in a 2014 fire. Two years later, in January, a gaping blackened hole remained in the roof, ceiling insulation littered the floor being taken over by weeds and grass amid debris including broken glass and chunks of wood in the empty house, which was the subject of a report by Times-Union news partner First Coast News.

An abandoned trailer sits at the end of Miller Street in Orange Park. Such properties are the focus of a potential ordinance.

“When you’ve got a building that’s boarded up and hasn’t had electricity to it in at least two years I think it’s time for us to decide what to do with that,” Bolla said.

The potential process would involve a county building inspector evaluating whether the structure was safe to live in, he said.

“Either fix it or get rid of it. That’s where I’m coming from on it. … I’d like to get your input and if we can make it better then let’s have at it,” Bolla told his fellow commissioners. “I’m not saying this is absolutely the best idea, but this something similar that is working in Duval County right now and it seems to be a viable option for us.”

Noting the county has been working on the blight issue for at least two years without making much headway on it, Bolla said the proposed ordinance would be one tool the county could use.

Commission Vice Chairman Ronnie Robinson then asked County Attorney Mark Scruby if he’d been working on an anti-blight ordinance. Scruby replied yes, and said it was the one just presented to the commission.

“I’m going to tell you right now we haven’t been working on a blight ordinance for two years or anything else,” Robinson said. Although he didn’t name them, Robinson said some people have been directly giving instructions to county staff without following the proper procedure.

“It has become a major problem. We have some who give direction to the county attorney, county auditor and county manager without it coming through the Board of County Commission by a majority being in agreement that we be working on something to start with,” Robinson said. A lot of work has been done on the proposed blight ordinance, said Robinson adding that he didn’t know until recently when he found out about it.

Bolla responded, telling Robinson “I told you about it when I started at it, a year ago.” Robinson shot back, “Well, if that’s the case then it will be easy to produce where we started on it and show where this board gave direction for my county attorney to be working on a blight ordinance.”

Robinson also said if a homeowners’ association is involved with the one boarded up house, it can go to civil court and get it taken care of. In addition, Robinson asserted that “Jacksonville is running into a lot of obstacles and spending a lot of money trying to enforce a blight ordinance.”

“I’m not saying we don’t have any problem in Clay County. But I’m also saying I don’t think we have the resources to be writing a new ordinance that’s going to cost a lot of money to try to enforce it to start with,” Robinson said. “And I think it’s absolutely not proper to where we have gotten to how many things being worked on that is not from the direction of the board, not of an individual.”

Bolla later said “to me, this was a no-brainer, I listened to the people in his district and it was important to them.”

“I’m sensitive to the feelings that as a board we should do things. But at the same time, somebody’s got to do something. You know, I just drove a stake in the ground. I told you what I was doing at least two or three times. And I’ve gone as far with this as I think I can,” he said.

Robinson then told Bolla he didn’t seem to understand the commissioners have to follow a specific process “where it’s not one-on-one. It’s five of us and we ought to be giving direction as a group, not as one.”

When Bolla said “let’s go forward from here and make the best we can out of it,” Robinson replied “you’re already there.”

It’s unknown how many blighted properties are in Clay County. Bolla said after the meeting that he regularly receives complaints from his constituents about such dilapidated eyesores in his district. He said there was no intent to trample on the rights of private property owners, but neighbors and the community also have rights.

Right now, the county doesn’t have staff to inspect such properties. Right now, it’s also unknown how much such an ordinance would cost to implement and maintain, according to Holly Parrish, county Economic and Development Services director.

Commission Chairwoman Diane Hutchings said she had a lot of questions and wanted more time to get them answered and thoroughly review the proposed ordinance. She and Commissioner Wendell Davis each said such an ordinance would have to be carefully written to prevent it from being abused to the detriment of property owners.

“I’m sensitive to the need as far as we have some issues that our current ordinances won’t address, but I’d be OK with directing staff to go a little further with it, but I’m not OK with adopting what we have here,” Hutchings said. “For me it’s a fine line between safety and it looks bad. If it’s safety, then there’s a greater good. … But if it’s blight, that I have a little more pause about for private property.”

Bolla said he was happy with Hutchings’ suggestion the commission move forward with more discussion on the issue.

Hutchings said Scruby should get with each commissioner individually then bring back a proposal to the commission. She also said Robinson was correct and “when we speak, we’re only speaking as the voice of at least three people.” She also said at the same time, she could understand how in this situation an inquiry then goes further.

Bolla after the meeting said he hoped the matter will come back in July.