Maintaining Gulfport's curb appeal may be a little easier than first thought. The city's new code enforcement system seems to be coming along without too much trouble, officials say.
When the Special Magistrate begins hearing code violations—by the end of March, according to Community Development Director Fred Metcalf—he or she may not have much to do, or at least as much as originally assumed.
Although he didn't specify the exact number of tickets written to violators since Gulfport made their code changes, Metcalf did indicate that increased awareness of the special magistrate program had the intended effect.
"We haven't had to give many citations," said Metcalf. "People are more knowledgeable about code enforcement."
Since the Gulfport City Council has begun cracking down on code violators—changing ordinances and creating the Special Magistrate—the community seems to have heard the news.
"People have been more cognizant of keeping their lawns clean," Metcalf said.
That shouldn’t come as much surprise, since the Gulfport City Council recently changed several ordinances for addressing issues like high grass, trash-filled yards and visible debris.
Last year, board members approved a new code enforcement system that is an alternative to the county courts. The new program established a Special Magistrate, judging code violations and assessing fines.
Since then, the board made some significant changes to both enforcement and the codes.
At the Feb. 7 Council meeting, members voted to change the mandate to address upholstered furniture and building material outdoors, in people's yards. In a 4 to 1 vote, city codes now require indoor furniture to stay indoors. In addition, trash cans now have to be "placed out of sight or adjacent to a structure."
The most significant motive for residents to keep their property looking clean may be the tougher system.
In November, the Council decided to eliminate the early warnings to violators. They voted to ditch the warnings—"love letters" called by some—and take violators directly to the magistrate system.
With the new system, code enforcement starts when officers act on a complaint. When an inspector finds a residence to be in violation of one of the city codes—excessive grass height, for example—a ticket is issued and the alleged violator must appear before the magistrate.
By the date set for the hearing, if the violation is not fixed, the city then may assess a fine. Fines will be up to $250 per day for a first offense, up to $500 per day for a second or multiple offenses.
If the property remains in violation, the city has the option to put a lien on the property. In the case of a property not homesteaded under Florida law, after three months, the city can foreclose on the lien.
Homesteaded properties will continue to be levied daily fines, but the case will then go to the county court system.
"We changed the procedure," said Metcalf. "It's now going straight towards legal, with only one notice."
Even though the warmer, summer months are when the city sees a spike in the number of code violations—like unmowed grass and visible debris—Metcalf sees the handful of citations as a good sign.
"It's a combination of time of year and awareness," Metcalf said.
As for the search for a Special Magistrate, Metcalf feels the new official should be in place soon. He added that there are some strong candidates for the job – all attorneys or legal professionals.
When the magistrate does begin hearing cases in Gulfport, the low number of cases may make the job smoother.
"So far," Metcalf said, "we haven't had any problems."
"It is encouraging," he added.