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Colfax gets complaint about 606 Balsam

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  What constitutes an eyesore?

And what, exactly, can the Village of Colfax do about it?

The Colfax Village Board wrestled with those two questions at the February 24 meeting after receiving a complaint from Beth Noer Fierek about the house at 606 Balsam across the street from the house owned by her parents, Juul and Penny Noer, at 605 First Avenue.

“It has been there for a long time. My mother has written letters of complaint. She has talked to the police. It doesn’t seem to make a difference … the place is an eyesore,” Fierek told the village board.

 Fierek also wrote a letter to the village dated February 20, and in the letter, she notes that she is the legal power of attorney for her parents.

Part of the problem with 606 Balsam are several vehicles parked on the property that Fierek says have not run in years.

Fierek said her parents have moved into an assisted living apartment at Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center and that they will want to sell their house on First Avenue at some point but are concerned that 606 Balsam will affect the sale.

Colfax has two ordinances that apply to situation, she said.

The first is Section 10-5-8 concerning junked vehicles and appliances on private property.

In her letter, Fierek writes, “There are a number of vehicles (including the two trailers parked immediately adjacent to the road) that have not been moved in an extremely long period of time. They are all covered with snow and I have not seen them moved since I moved back to the area in October of 2012. According to your e-mail [from Jackie Ponto, village administrator] they are reported to be operational and appropriately licensed which I don’t know how this has been assessed as they have not been moved.”

Fierek also cites Section 8-1-8 related to unhealthy or unsightly materials on public or private property “detrimental to the appearance, neatness and cleanliness of the immediate neighborhood or the Village of Colfax in general …”

“Ordinances are not written to penalize someone. They are written to protect other people,” Fierek told the village board.

Vehicles

If a vehicle is properly licensed and registered, the vehicle is not considered junk, no matter what it looks like, said Colfax Police Chief Pete Gehring.

“I try to enforce everybody equally. A registered vehicle is okay by our ordinance. If they are willing to spend money each year to register the vehicle, whether it moves or not, it’s okay to be there,” he said.

Police Chief Gehring noted that he has asked the village’s attorney about nearly every aspect of the property in question: trailers, vehicles, flower beds, canoes.

“The trailers do not have to be registered … the canoes are registered with the state of Wisconsin, and they are on a rack,” he said.

As for long grass and weeds hanging over the sidewalk, both have been addressed through the village’s abatement process, and every notice that has been sent has been corrected within the 30 days that the ordinances allow, Police Chief Gehring said, noting that the ordinances currently are being revised to include an easier, shorter abatement process requiring a response in a matter of days rather than a month.

Right-of-way

After going out with the director of public works to measure First Avenue, Police Chief Gehring said they had discovered the street is irregular.

The rest of First Avenue has a right-of-way that is 44 feet wide, but the half block in front of the Noer house is listed on the plat map as being 66 feet wide.

The house at 606 Balsam has a boulevard but no sidewalk, and the village would have to correct the entire street to 66 feet wide, he said.

“Only half of the block is like that. I wasn’t around when it was platted, so I don’t know the how or the why,” Police Chief Gehring said.

Because the property has a boulevard and no sidewalk, the property owner is “using it as an excuse” to use the boulevard for whatever he wants, the police chief said.

Current laws and current plat maps are all law enforcement has to work with, he noted.

Fierek said she believed that the plat map was not correct.

“Maybe not, but it’s what I’ve got to work with,” Police Chief Gehring said.

“Outside of the direction of the village board, I don’t see where I have the legal open door to take further action,” he said.

Fierek said the entire property is unsightly but that she does not dare trying to talk to the property owner because of several dogs kept within the chain link fence around the yard.

A couple of years ago, the property owner left a deer carcass in the yard for the dogs to eat, she said.

Police Chief Gehring said he had asked the state Department of Natural Resources about the dead deer in the yard and was told that it was legal.

Mark Halpin, village trustee, said he had driven past the property the other day and agreed that it is unsightly.

Enforcing the ordinances “has to be the same for everybody in town … it is something the village board needs to consider, and the police department will work at the direction of the village board,” Police Chief Gehring said.

Operational

Scott Gunnufson, village president, wondered if the police chief could ask the property owner to prove that the vehicles are operational.

“I would need a search warrant to enforce that,” Police Chief Gehring said.

The appearance of the property is an issue, and the ordinance appears to have a loophole for operational, Gunnufson said.

“Maybe it is time for the board to get involved,” Police Chief Gehring reiterated.

Several other properties in town fit the description of unsightly as well, Gunnufson noted.

“Tell me what pieces of property. I will make a telephone call inviting (the property owners) to my office to address the issues. If their responses are not satisfactory then the board can decide how to pursue it,” Police Chief Gehring said.

Fierek pointed out that other municipalities in Wisconsin issue fines every five days when an issue is not resolved.

In response to a question from Gunnufson about what is legal to put on the tax bill, Ponto said that citations cannot be added to the tax bill, although tree removal, late utility bills, grass cutting and snow shoveling can be added to the property taxes.

“We are not allowed to cross the fence line to correct problems there. We can issue the citations. We can use the court process. But we cannot trespass. In order to find out if the vehicles are operational, I would have to get a search warrant, if a county judge would issue one,” Police Chief Gehring said.

“There are a lot of legalities we have to consider. I have to stay within the law. I think (the first) step is to have a face-to-face to see what they will comply with. And if they don’t, we go to plan B,” he said.

Fierek and members of the Colfax Village Board agreed that the police chief’s suggestion at least offered a place to start.