Code enforcement violators could face greater fines in Wellington after members of the Wellington Village Council gave preliminary approval Tuesday to an ordinance increasing the maximum penalties that can be levied.
Under the new code, a special magistrate could punish violators up to $1,000 for first violations, $5,000 a day for repeat violations and a $15,000 one-time charge for irreparable or irreversible violations.
Currently the maximum fine is $250 a day for first violations, $500 a day for repeat violations and a one-time charge of $5,000 for irreparable or irreversible fines, Director of Growth Management Bob Basehart said.
“This would enhance the possibility to accomplish the compliance with the codes we enforce by means of increasing the maximum potential fine,” Basehart said.
The change is aimed at repeat violators who continue to flout the rules in the face of fines, Basehart said.
“The current fines are generally sufficient to accommodate most of the residents and property owners and businesses in the village,” he said. “However, we find that there’s a small and growing number of property owners in the village for whom the current fine structures and limits do not make them comply and stay in compliance with our various codes.”
Though Wellington’s fines are already at the upper limit of those allowed universally by the state, Wellington’s population of more than 50,000 residents allows the village to increase the cost of violations.
The special magistrate would have discretion in assigning fines, Basehart said, and would evaluate each case on certain criteria.
“The first is the egregiousness of the violation; how severe it is,” he said. “Health and safety issues are more egregious than a dirty sidewalk. The second consideration is whether the violator made attempts to correct the violation before going to the hearing. Often people can’t get it corrected between the notice of violation and the hearing, but if there is an attempt made, that is a factor. The third criterion is to consider how many times a violator has been in violation of our codes before.”
Village Manager Paul Schofield noted that most fines — like those for garbage cans — would remain the same.
“Where you see the maximum fines is for issues like public safety,” he said. “That’s what is changing. It’s for problems that we’ve been unable to control. This is not an increase so that every time someone gets a fine we’re going to recommend $500 or $1,000. Most typical first violations tend to be $25 or $50.”
Margolis asked for examples of life safety issues. Schofield said it could include a building being occupied while it has exposed electrical, or if a building didn’t have structural supports in.
“It’s issues where there is a real possibility of physical harm happening,” Schofield said. “We see life safety violations occasionally. It would be when someone is in actual danger.”
Code Enforcement Director Steve Koch noted a common life safety violation is an unsecured pool.
Schofield noted that the current fines are not enough to dissuade some violators.
“In some cases, the maximum fine at $250 or $500 is looked at as the cost of doing business,” he said.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig asked what would be considered an irreversible violation.
“It’s something that cannot be corrected,” Basehart said. “Even cutting a tree down without a permit, you can replace the tree.”
Koch said one example is water violations during times of drought, which he said has been upheld by courts. “Once the water is gone, it’s gone,” he said. “That was the court’s reasoning behind it.”
Vice Mayor Howard Coates asked how the new fines compare to other municipalities, and Koch said that West Palm Beach is one city that has imposed maximum fines.
Councilman John Greene said that there seem to be a few chronic offenders who avoid punishment by leaving after the season.
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“Things start and they end and we never make any progress,” he said. “I’m going to support this… I think the fines that you had on the books, and the process that we have used to try and get people to come into compliance with our ordinance hasn’t been effective. I think we need to push the limits and get tough.”
Mayor Bob Margolis asked Koch if he felt increasing the fines would help enforcement.
“We’re hoping so,” Koch said. “This isn’t going to be for the general, run-of-the-mill violations.”
During public comment, Alec Domb and Mike Nelson raised concerns about the ordinance.
“I understand what you’re trying to do,” Domb said. “I hope the average person is not going to get these fine increases.”
Domb also raised concerns about using a special magistrate, and instead suggested a code enforcement board. He also felt Wellington needed to make meetings more accessible.
“The meetings are during the day,” he said. “People have to take off work and lose pay… in order to attend these hearings.”
Nelson, who represents Palm Beach Polo & Country Club, noted that though most small violations are easily corrected, he has experienced problems working with the village to correct larger issues.
“There is only so much we can do,” he said. “If the village elects not to be responsive, there is nothing we can do. We are not going to stop our business because the village has failed to be responsive.”
Nelson said he felt that the new rules were aimed at a handful of violators, notably Mark Bellissimo and Glenn Straub.
“Both of them have a series of lawsuits against the village for a rescission of rights that they were granted by a prior council,” he said. “To multiply the fines by 10 times because you’re mad at six people, three of whom are suing you, I think is foolish. I think it’s foolish for the village to do this without looking into the real issue, [village responsiveness].”
But Greene said that the increased fines could make violators careful not to violate in the first place.
“If people comply with the ordinances and they correct violations, this is a moot point,” he said. “If it’s $1 or $1 million, follow the rules and you don’t have a problem.”
Greene made a motion to approve the ordinance, which passed 4-1 with Gerwig opposed.