There are no sirens, no flashing lights, no crackling police radio in Timothy Ahonen's run-down maroon Chevy pickup. But as the code enforcement officer cruises the streets of Burlington's Old North End one Thursday afternoon in April, he's looking for people breaking the law.
Ahonen, a former Burlington cop, notices a broken chair lying on the lawn in front of a multi-family apartment building. "That's a housing issue," he comments disapprovingly.
He makes a mental note and keeps driving. He's headed to investigate the progress of a zoning complaint at another property, but he can't help pointing out sundry violations as he sees them. "You develop an eye for these things," he observes.
Ahonen is one of the city's seven code enforcement officers. These men and women are charged with upholding Burlington's zoning laws and the Minimum Housing Ordinance contained in Chapter 18 of the city's statues. They also monitor compliance with regulations regarding noise, parking, trash removal and public health. With more than 10,000 rental units that need to be inspected once every 12 to 18 months, and several hundred additional complaints annually, it's a busy job.
And things have picked up significantly in the past year. Last April Burlington hired a new code enforcement director, Gregory B. McKnight II. The soft-spoken administrator has streamlined the inspection process and lit a fire under his employees. In 2004, the Code Enforcement Office performed 2800 inspections. McKnight's crew topped that number in 2005 in the third quarter alone. This year they hope to hit 12,000.
McKnight takes his job very seriously. On a shelf in his office he keeps several vials of ethanol containing insects he found while inspecting rental units in Denver. "These are my Oriental cockroaches," he says, pointing to one vial. "They were coming out of a drain." The bedbugs in another vial "came out of some little girl's bed," he says.
McKnight insists that the code enforcement job is an important one. His inspectors help protect tenants from the structures they inhabit, help landlords protect their investments, and help make Burlington's neighborhoods clean and safe places to live.
Ahonen adds that his impartial third-party analysis helps head off disputes among landlords, tenants and angry neighbors. "We keep the peace," he says.
On this afternoon, Ahonen, the inspector who handles zoning violations, is on his way to a house in the Old North End where neighbors have complained about cars parked illegally in the yard. That's the biggest zoning issue in town, especially in areas with high concentrations of college students living off-campus.
Students aren't the problem here, though. The owner of this property is using the tiny fenced-in plot around his house to store old cars in varying states of disrepair. The scabby patch of dirt resembles a mini junkyard.
"People get used to things a certain way," Ahonen explains as he peers over the fence at the mess. "They don't necessarily see that it can be a problem for people in their neighborhood."
Despite the cluttered state of the yard, Ahonen actually sees improvement. "We're down from seven cars to four," he notes.
Though it's illegal to have so many cars packed into the space, Ahonen can't simply have the vehicles removed. Once a neighbor complains, he first visits the site to verify the complaint. Then he sends a letter giving the owner 10 days to correct the violation or produce a permit exempting it.
But with zoning violations, owners have a number of ways to forestall action, and the process typically takes a while. Ahonen has been working on this site since February. Despite the slow pace of change, he describes this owner as "very cooperative," and says he's probably moving as fast as he can to get rid of the cars.
McKnight, who has accompanied the inspector on this visit, says in a case like this neighbors may think the city is doing nothing with a complaint, when in fact it's simply stuck in a long and cumbersome process. When McKnight came on the job, his office had a backlog of 1400 zoning complaints. Even with their new streamlined processes, they've only been able to cut that in half in the past year, and 200 to 300 new complaints are filed annually.
"We pretty much have to go all the way through the court system to get a zoning violation corrected," he says.
Ahonen adds, "That takes time."
Violations of the city's Minimum Housing Ordinance are easier to resolve because they involve more immediate health and safety issues. Minimum Housing covers all the city's rental units. Landlords pay a $50 to $75 annual fee to register their units with the city. Code enforcement officers visit the properties for routine inspections that are scheduled with landlords in advance; tenants are required by law to have at least 48 hours notice.
That's important because inspectors don't just cite landlords; they can also fine irresponsible tenants for not maintaining the property properly. Landlords who skip those inspections can be charged an additional $60 fee. If need be, code enforcement officers can obtain a search warrant to proceed.
That's not something that happens often, says George Coutrayer. A five-year veteran of the Code Enforcement Office, Courtrayer departs for a series of afternoon inspections dressed casually in jeans and a flannel coat. In his small black backpack he carries a legal pad, a pen and a stapled photocopy of Chapter 18. "This is our bible," he says.
Coutrayer's destination is a duplex in the city's Lakeside neighborhood, near the General Dynamics plant. While he's waiting for the owner to arrive, he walks the perimeter of the building and eyes its exterior. He's looking for holes in the walls and cracks in the windows or the foundation. He's checking the condition of the paint and the wood trim. He's noting the condition of the porches and steps.
When he's done, he says everything looks fine. Then the landlord invites him inside.
Coutrayer scopes out the living room walls and checks the fan in the bathroom as the landlord explains that the unit has recently been gutted and remodeled. Indeed, the trim and the paint job look great.
Next Coutrayer descends into the basement, where he finds a laundry basket and a full recycling bin abutting the unit's boiler. "Tell your tenant they can't store stuff around the heating system," he says. After testing the smoke detectors and checking the second floor, that's all Coutrayer can find to say about the first unit.
The second apartment is another story. At first, the inspector seems pleased with the condition of the place. It's not as nice as the other half of the duplex -- the owner says he hasn't had a chance to renovate it yet -- but the windows and walls meet Coutrayer's approval. He spots an extension cord and checks to see if the landlord has provided a surge protector. He has.
When the two descend the stairs to the basement, Coutrayer again reminds the landlord about storing items too close to the heating system. Then he sees the smoke detector. The building is fitted with detectors that are hardwired into the electrical system, but the faceplate for the one in the basement has been removed. Wires dangle recklessly from the base. Coutrayer shakes his head. Tampering with smoke detectors is illegal.
When the inspector climbs the stairs to the second floor, he peers into a room with two twin beds. Judging by the colorful sheets, it's the kids' bedroom. That detector's out, too.
He checks all the rooms. "Oh," he murmurs somberly, "they're all out. That's not good." The landlord absorbs the news stoically, though he's probably not too pleased to find his investment so blatantly unprotected.
When he's through with the inspection, Coutrayer pulls a pink flyer from his backpack and leaves it on one of the placemats on the tenants' kitchen table. The flyer explains that tenants who disable smoke detectors can be fined $1000 -- per offense. In other words, these folks could get slapped with a $5000 fine.
Coutrayer tells the landlord the tenants have 24 hours to get the detectors back on line. He'll return for a follow-up inspection on Monday to be sure the problem has been fixed.
And what if the fix is only temporary? Coutrayer warns that next time he's cruising around the neighborhood in his white Malibu, he'll stop by for a surprise inspection.
"I drive up, show 'em my badge, and say, 'Just got to make sure the smokes are in," he explains. "If I come on a surprise visit and they're out, they're fined."
Sure makes him sound a lot like a cop.