The city’s fight to clean up the yard of a home on Avenue G is at a stand-still nearly five years after it began. The City Council is considering filing a civil lawsuit against the property owners after the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench in plans to prosecute the residents for a second time.
Neighbors and some council members want to know why the city will not enforce its nuisance ordinance to remove items like washing machines, mattresses and furniture from the property. City Attorney Evan Alvarez cites precedent and protection.
What can the city do?
The city has two options for addressing the violation of the nuisance ordinance. The first is to issue a notice of abatement. This process is handled administratively by the city, not in court. After giving a nuisance notice, the residents have five days to clean up the property. If they fail to do so, the city may begin hauling everything from the yard.
Alvarez called this approach a cat and mouse game, advising the council to seek a long-term solution. The nuisance notice method is typically preserved for condemnation proceedings as it puts the city at risk, he added.
Another option, which the city has already utilized, is to request a criminal citation for the violation of its nuisance ordinance. The city set a precedent using this process to abate the same property approximately two years ago.
After obtaining a court order from Judge William Kleinpeter, the city hired a moving company to haul off four 18-wheelers full of items from the yard. During the encounter, the residents called the West Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office on city officials. Officials presented the deputies with the court order and continued the cleanup. The city puts itself at risk of legal action from residents without the court order, Alvarez said.
What’s the hold-up?
As the city attempts to get another conviction for violating the nuisance ordinance, the residents have failed to show up to court for trial. The court issued a bench warrant for their arrest. Typically, they would be arrested and held until their trial date. However, due to coronavirus mitigation measures, the couple cannot be held in jail for a misdemeanor. Without an appearance at trial and without a way to ensure their appearance at trial, the case has come to a halt. But the collection of items continues.
Neighbors and council members are frustrated that the process has stagnated, and a seemingly never-ending collection of items continues to spill from the home’s dilapidated front porch and into the yard.
“Either we’re not taking advantage of every avenue that we have, or the laws are messed up - it’s one or the other,” Councilman Hugh Riviere said. “There’s no way somebody should be able to hold a whole neighborhood hostage the way this has been done.”
Councilman Garry Hubble agreed, adding, “We’re so concerned about their rights, but other people have rights, too.”
Alvarez advised the City Council to consider pursuing a civil lawsuit against the legal heirs to the property, which would require them to maintain the property and hold the tenants accountable for its condition. If won, the civil suit would give the city the ability to file for contempt of court any time the property reached unsightly status - and giving the city permission to remove items from the property for disposal at any time. The timeline will rely on the court system and is unlikely to be a quick solution.
“We’d be in court forever,” lamented Councilwoman Charlene Gordon.
Council members Riviere and Hubble were clear Wednesday night - they want a quick solution. Councilman Riviere asked the council to consider abating the property through the nuisance ordinance in addition to considering a civil lawsuit.
Records show Port Allen spent $1,706.21 on hiring movers and hundreds more in legal fees to have the first citation and court order issued. Alvarez said the cost of the movers was eventually reimbursed by either the tenants or property owner.
Next week, the City Council will consider whether to pursue abatement through the city’s nuisance ordinance, pursue civil action against the legal heirs or both.