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City Council to issue report regarding nuisance vehicles following public comment

An old car sits in an overgrown field.
Jen Theodore
Columbia City Council prepares to respond to a resident's public comment on nuisance vehicles.

Columbia City staff is working on a report regarding vehicles that are designated by the city as a nuisance, following public comment from a resident who called the ordinance a “burden to tenants, landlords and homeowners” during last week’s council meeting.

The report, scheduled to be presented during the council’s Oct. 2 meeting, will gather information from the Office of Neighborhood Services, a branch of the Community Development Department in charge of code enforcement — ‘nuisance vehicles’ among them. Council will have an opportunity to use the report to review the ordinance.

The issue at hand appears to be twofold: One of definition and one of category.

Under chapter 11 of the city code, certain vehicles are designated as a nuisance if they fall under any of the following four categories: Unlicensed, dismantled, inoperable or junk-filled. If a vehicle fits any of those definitions, and is located within a private property, that vehicle is declared a public safety hazard and a nuisance, according to the city code.

But a strict definition of what constitutes a nuisance, without a direct reference to vehicles, is not found in the code.

Also, out of the four categories, unlicensed appears to stand out. These can simply be vehicles without a license plate or have an expired license plate but not necessarily dismantled, inoperable or junk-filled. Yet the city lumps them all together.

That’s what prompted Glenn Rice, who took the podium last week, to issue his criticism and ask the council to amend chapter 11 by removing any references to unlicensed vehicles.

Rice, a longtime city resident, owns a house he rents out on the north side of the city. On Aug. 8, he received a notice of violation from the Office of Neighborhood Services, ordering him to remove a vehicle owned by one of his tenants that sits on the property.

The vehicle, a four-door Infiniti, is not dismantled, inoperable or filled with junk but lacks a license plate. Rice has until Tuesday to take action or face a potential visit from a city inspector, according to the notice.

“It’s a discrimination against people that can’t afford to get their vehicles licensed on time,” Rice told the Missourian. “They shouldn’t be punished for that, and furthermore, the landlord should not be punished at all.”

Rice said the reason his tenant hasn’t renewed their license plate is because of financial difficulties. Still, because the unlicensed vehicle can’t be traced to its owner, the responsibility to abate the situation falls on Rice because he’s the owner of the property.

Last week, he told council members that it’s not his business to tell his tenant how to conduct theirs.

His complaint prompted Second Ward Councilperson Andrea Waner to ask that staff take a look into potentially making changes to the way nuisance vehicles, specifically unlicensed vehicles, are treated. She said that staff should also look into how low-income residents are being affected by the ordinance.

According to Neighborhood Services manager Leigh Kottwitz, the report will include information on the number of open cases that are similar to Rice’s, how many people are being prosecuted as a result of violations, where in Columbia are these cases located, how Columbia arrived at this ordinance in the first place and how does it compare with other cities in Missouri that have similar ordinances.

“This is an opportunity to just share with city council a little bit about how we apply that code and information about how that’s enforced, and then just help them to understand more about what’s going on,” Kottwitz said. “I’m sure they’ll provide us guidance on what the next steps should be.”

Kottwitz said that voluntary compliance is the real goal. While Rice can start an abatement process and be prosecuted if he doesn’t take action, Kottwitz stressed that the city doesn’t want to have to take additional enforcement action and added that the process tends to be lenient.

An abatement process outlines further steps that the city can take in the event the violation isn’t resolved and provides guidelines that either the property owner or the owner of the vehicle that is found in violation can take, such as requesting a hearing.

“It’s pretty rare that we will abate an unlicensed car,” Kottwitz said.

Complaints about nuisance vehicles are more often than not driven by residents. A resident may notice a vehicle that sits idle for months, or years, according to Kottwitz, or notice a vehicle with flat tires that hasn’t moved and issue a complaint. This is the category of cases most commonly understood as a nuisance vehicle.

“I think when neighbors see that, then they maybe feel like it reflects in a negative way on their neighborhood,” Kottwitz said.

In Rice’s case, his tenant’s unlicensed vehicle is facing away from the street and the neighbors’ view. The notice Rice received wasn’t prompted by a resident but from a city rental inspector noticing the unlicensed Infiniti.

Vehicles that are merely unlicensed are among the type of cases that city staff are reviewing.

“We want to go through our cases and really sift through and find out how many of those code cases the car would otherwise be in compliance other than being unlicensed,” Kottwitz said.

The issue has propelled several council members, including Third Ward Councilperson Roy Lovelady, Fourth Ward Councilperson Nick Foster and Waner, to support potentially amending the language of chapter 11.

“It sounds to me as if they have clumped two types of vehicles together — those who don’t have license tags, or expired license tags, and those that are abandoned cars that are not tagged,” Lovelady said.

“So it’s easy to be able to prosecute (people) for not having the appropriate tag,” he said. “But I think what (council) were really trying to address was those abandoned cars that were sitting there for a period of time.”

Lovelady said that his constituents often engage in a back-and-forth between moving their unlicensed vehicles onto the street and back onto private property once a warning is issued. Cars on the street are merely ticketed and not ordered to be towed.

“It seems to me as if the language (of the code) needs to be adjusted,” Lovelady said. “I would support amending the language to make it better understood.”

Foster said he looks forward to hearing from city staff. “(Rice’s case) is a good example to review the ordinance,” Foster told the Missourian.

He added that he, too, would be open to amending the language of chapter 11 under the right circumstances. Like Kottwitz, Foster mentioned that it’s important to recognize that the code is there for a reason.

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
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