Ordinance would crack down on problem properties
The Seattle City Council is considering a law that would crack down on nuisance properties and fine owners who fail to stop drug dealing, prostitution and other criminal activities.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle City Council is considering a new law that would crack down on nuisance properties and fine owners who fail to stop drug dealing, prostitution and other criminal activities.
An ordinance before the council's Public Safety, Human Services and Education Committee would replace the city's existing nuisance law with one that is tougher and easier to enforce.
Tim Burgess, committee chairman, said the existing law is so vague and ambiguous it's rarely enforced. "This gives the city more tools to objectively establish when a property is a chronic nuisance," he said.
A problem with the current law, said Burgess and the Seattle Police Department, is that anyone who makes a complaint has his or her name exposed, and many people are afraid to publicly complain. Further, the law requires people to prove they've been harmed.
Under the new version, initial complaints could be anonymous and complaints would be put in the hands of police. According to the ordinance, "the chief of police may declare that a property is a chronic nuisance property" when there are specific and chronic incidents of nuisance activity.
The ordinance gives the property owner time to fix what the city considers a nuisance, and a written correction agreement would be drafted. But "if the matter is not voluntarily corrected to the satisfaction of the chief of police," the city can file an action to declare the property a chronic nuisance.
The ordinance under consideration would define nuisance properties as places where criminal activity occurs three or more times in a 60-day period or seven or more times in any year. It would also kick in with three or more violations of the city's fire code or two or more court determinations related to drug use in a year.
The new ordinance would not include noise, liquor, land-use or building-code violations because they're handled by different laws and different agencies.
If property owners don't remove the nuisances, they could face a fine of $500 a day or a civil penalty up to $25,000. Business licenses could also be revoked. The penalty is civil, not criminal.
That's huge for Erin Ehlinger, whose brother was killed in 2005 in a motel on Aurora Avenue North. "There's very simple things owners can do to make their place not a magnet for a bunch of criminal activity," she said. "The (existing law) is too fuzzy and didn't specify these kinds of activities."
Burgess said that when he was first elected, neighborhoods in Fremont and Greenwood invited him to do walking tours to talk about the highly visible narcotics trafficking, prostitution and gun violence.
He started looking at what other cities had done to curb chronic nuisance and came up with the new ordinance.
"Now police will instigate an investigation and take it to the City Attorney's office," said Burgess. "This gives police an extra tool. They can go to the property owner and compel him to work on a voluntary basis and solve the problem. It that doesn't work, the police could declare the property a nuisance."
He said the new law is the first time the city will have the ability to suspend or revoke a business license if a commercial property owner participates in criminal activity.
Burgess said Councilman Nick Licata has proposed an amendment, which he supports, that says if an innocent tenant is displaced because a business, such as a problem motel, is shut down, the tenant would be entitled to relocation assistance from the property owner.
Burgess said the ordinance will be back before his committee this month and hopes it can be passed by early December, so it can be signed by Mayor Greg Nickels before the mayor leaves office in January.
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or email@example.com
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