Gerald Schmitz spent two months in jail and racked up thousands in fines defending his right to keep his stuff — an estimated 150 old cars, boats and snowmobiles scattered across his Shakopee acreage.

Slapped with property code violations, Schmitz, 72, has fought the city for six years, arguing his property rights trump the city’s efforts to battle residential blight.

Partly because of cases like Schmitz’s, some Twin Cities suburbs such as Shakopee are becoming more proactive in cracking down on code violators. It’s one of suburbia’s most contentious issues, often pitting neighbor against neighbor and residents against City Hall.

“The number one thing that will make an elected official’s phone ring, honestly, is a code issue,” said Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate.

City officials are taking a variety of approaches, from cracking down with abatement orders, civil fines and citations to encouraging residents to fix their problems through city-sponsored loan programs.

Shakopee has stepped up enforcement, hiring its first code inspector last year and switching from a complaint-based system to an enterprising one.

In the inspector’s first year, the city has handled 127 more residential code violations than before, according to Tate. Most code violations are settled with a simple warning, he said, but so far this year the police have issued 44 more tickets than in all of 2018.

Roseville code enforcement staffers inspect half the city each year through the Neighborhood Enhancement Program, sending out letters to residents who aren’t compliant. The city opened 454 code violation cases last year, and most were resolved quietly.

When problems persist, Roseville officials prefer to order an abatement — having a crew mow the lawn or haul away junk — and assess the property owner, rather than issue a citation that winds up in court.

Citations “didn’t get the job done. People kept seeing the same things. Neighbors get frustrated,” said City Manager Patrick Trudgeon.

Bloomington employs eight people who each year systematically inspect every property from the street. They issue about 3,000 written notices of violations annually, with most being resolved quickly.

“In the ’90s, the city transitioned from responding to complaints to being more proactive, because why should neighbors have to call us about it?” said Bloomington Environmental Health Manager Lynn Moore.

Proactive code enforcement continues to win strong support from the City Council, Moore said.

“Most cities like Bloomington that are fully developed want to maintain their property values. This helps to keep the neighborhoods looking nice,” Moore said.

A softer stance

Other cities have adopted a gentler approach. Brooklyn Park emphasizes outreach and cultural competence vs. punitive measures, given that some residents may not be able to afford repairs.

So far it seems to be working. The city issued 121 citations for code violations last year, down 40% from 2014. The number of abatements ordered was nearly cut in half.

Jason Newby, Brooklyn Park’s inspections and environmental health manager, said the old way of doing business didn’t take into account the city’s economically and culturally diverse population, including many immigrants.

In June, Brooklyn Park launched its Code Correction Loan Program to help residents pay for fixes. But the new methods have required some getting used to.

“It has taken time to change the mind-set of the inspector and to also balance the expectations the complainant had grown accustomed to — which was a swift, no-tolerance approach,” Newby said.

Kate Thunstrom, St. Francis’ community development director, said blighted properties aren’t always or even often about defiance or laziness. Residents may start hoarding because of mental health problems or simply feel overwhelmed by the accumulation. Sometimes it’s simply adult children asking their suburban parents to store items on their large lots.

St. Francis resolved a dicey situation this spring at the home of a couple that had amassed $20,000 in fines. Their unlicensed vehicles, debris and unsafe deck were unsightly and interfered with meter readers, Thunstrom said.

The couple said they had health challenges that kept them from cleaning up and denied receiving some of the city’s notices. “Please don’t put this fine on our taxes,” they wrote the City Council. “We have nowhere else to live and the monthly increase would cause us to lose our house.”

Eventually, the couple’s friends helped them tidy up, and city officials settled the matter for $4,200. The couple said the settlement was costly but fair.

Going to extremes

Still, city leaders say that some cases can test the limits of their policies and patience. “I’m sure a lot of cities have a story about that one person … that just refuses to clean it up,” Tate said.

In Shakopee, Schmitz went to jail for nearly two months in 2017 for not complying with a judge’s order to remove unlicensed vehicles after the city sent up a drone to survey his land. Schmitz occasionally tows away a few cars, but new ones soon appear, Tate said.

“In my 21 years, I’ve never seen anything like this property,” Tate said. “It doesn’t take a hard-core environmentalist to look at this and go, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ ”

Tate said that Schmitz has indicated he believes his fleet of inoperable vehicles and assorted items are valuable. He thinks that the former farm property should be grand­fathered in under previous ordinances because his family has owned it for decades.

In March, Shakopee began issuing Schmitz one ticket each week for code violations; so far, he has accumulated more than 20. The battle will continue in a courtroom this October, with city officials hoping to get an order allowing them to clean up the property. If that doesn’t happen, they may pursue civil remedies.

Schmitz’s attorney did not return a call for comment.

A similar situation is playing out in Roseville, where William Acree, who was cited for code violations in 2015, was threatened in May with another citation if he didn’t clear out piles of building material, tools and other items covering much of his yard.

One of Acree’s neighbors, Connie Wilmes, choked back tears at a recent City Council meeting describing how she can’t escape the sight of Acree’s yard. She said she can see it from every one of her home’s front windows.

“For us, it’s way, way too much. We lose sleep over it. It breaks my spirit,” Wilmes said. “It feels like harassment and doing things just to irritate the neighborhood.” Her husband, Dave, talked about neighborhood concerns over the impact on property values.

Acree responded that he had a right to enjoy his property. Why, he asked, should neighbors get to dictate the number of cars, grills, flowerpots and solar lights that he gets to keep?

“Granted, I have accumulated a lot of stuff, but it’s not bad stuff per se. It’s stuff I enjoy having. I pay my property taxes and mortgage payment,” Acree said. He added that he was willing to “do whatever it takes” to settle the matter. But he also said: “I am not living for my neighbors.”

Tate called code enforcement “an art,” where elected officials and city staffers often must balance firmness with empathy.

“Each city has a different tolerance level or acceptance, and that’s something for the community and elected officials to decide,” he said.

 

erin.adler@startribune.com 612-673-1781 shannon.prather@startribune.com 651-925-5037