At the end of Oak Creek's annual town cleanup day last week, trash collectors hauled away four containers of steel, three trucks' worth of garbage and 15 yards of tires, Waste Management site manager Jay Harris said.
"It's less than the last two years, so maybe we're getting this cleaned up," said Oak Creek Mayor Kathy "Cargo" Rodeman.
Cleanup day is part of Oak Creek's ongoing beautification efforts, but this year it's also a turning point. Now that residents have had an opportunity to dispose of their trash, town officials are determined to crack down on clutter.
"We want to work with our citizens. But we want them to remember we have ordinances and they will be enforced," Code Enforcement Officer Linda Koile said. "I have been most kind with many, many verbal and written warnings."
On cleanup day, town residents disposed of unwanted trash, appliances, scrap metal and wood, all free of charge. Residents paid a $3 disposal fee per tire and dropped off more than 60 junk tires, Town Clerk Nancy Crawford said. In an effort to reduce the quantity of items going to the landfill, wood went in a separate scrap heap at Soroco High School's football field so it can be used for the homecoming bonfire celebration next year, Rodeman said.
Before cleanup day, Koile repeatedly alerted Oak Creek residents to any situations that would be in violation of the town's nuisance codes, she said. She wanted to give a "heads up" so people knew what they needed to get rid of on the free trash collection day.
In the spirit of keeping Oak Creek's beautification efforts neighborly, Koile's written warnings are decorated with smiley faces.
"There were many little smiley-face warnings given out last week," Rodeman said of the week before cleanup day.
Koile said it was all part of a proactive, preventative ticketing and education effort.
"We're trying to create a positive community thing. That's a tough thing to do given past regimes," Koile said, referring to Oak Creek's embattled history with its law enforcement.
Oak Creek's nuisance ordinance is a huge point of contention, Rodeman said. After considerable debate at Oak Creek Town Board meetings, the board scheduled a work session for July 15 to review proposed amendments to the town's nuisance ordinance.
An accumulation of unlicensed cars is one of the town's ongoing debates. Oak Creek's ordinance prohibits unlicensed vehicles from being parked in town. One of the proposed changes to the ordinance would allow one unlicensed vehicle per property, as long as it is being worked on and is not "all torn up" or in the public street or right of way, Rodeman said.
After spending an afternoon touring Oak Creek with Police Chief Tim Willert, Rodeman said she saw up to 50 vehicles without current license plates parked inside town limits.
The next step will be to work with towing companies and residents to try to remove some of the cars, Rodeman said. A few years ago, towing companies picked up cars from the edge of people's property for free, collecting only the proceeds from the crushed steel as their compensation.
"They were dragging cars out of here all day long," Rodeman said.
She said she is working to set up a similar opportunity for Oak Creek again in the near future, which she hopes will result in a dramatic reduction in the quantity of unlicensed vehicles on residents' properties.
For those who don't comply, Oak Creek's nuisance ordinance will come into play, and Koile is there to enforce it.
"A few offenders don't see it in the same way we see it," Koile said. "We're going to have a firm approach to addressing our problems. They are problems that most likely have been problems in the past."
Some of the offenders include owners of properties that appear virtually abandoned. They might have been noticed in the past, but no one has done anything before, Koile said.
For some of those properties, Oak Creek began an abatement process this week.
Four certified letters went out Wednesday to out-of-town property owners who have "dilapidated, unkempt buildings with tall grass, abandoned vehicles and falling-down buildings," Koile said.
The property owners have 14 days to get in touch with the Town Board and request a hearing. At the hearing, board members will make a decision regarding how to take corrective actions on the property.
"Hopefully they'll hire someone to clean up the property immediately," Koile said.
If not, the property owners will be billed for whatever it costs the town to clean up, she said. For property owners who "agree to disagree," the Town Board will assume liability and proceed with the cleanup, sending the bill to the property owners.
If cleanup disputes go to court, the property owner in violation of the ordinances also will be responsible for reimbursing the town's legal expenses, Koile said.
Rodeman said she plans to personally call the owners of the "eight worst properties in town" and see what their stories are for noncompliance. She said she would be happy to send someone over to help people out, especially if the owners are elderly or disabled.
Some houses have gotten letters for decades, but nothing has ever been done about abatement, Rodeman said.
One of the major hitches to starting the abatement process has been the absence of a "specific per se ordinance in Oak Creek's nuisance ordinance," Koile said.
To proceed, Koile used a 1997 Oak Creek building code, which is part of the town's municipal code but is not part of the nuisance code book she usually uses.
Building code section 3402 mandates "all buildings and structures, both existing and new, and all parts thereof, shall be maintained in a safe and sanitary condition. ... The owner or the owner's designated agent shall be responsible for the maintenance of buildings and structures."
Adding a building upkeep code to Oak Creek's nuisance ordinances likely will be at the top of the town trustees' list at their workshop next month.
In the meantime, Koile said she and the other Oak Creek officers will be following through with their enforcement commitment.
"We're not ticket-happy," Koile said, emphasizing the ongoing importance of code violation education. "That's what community policing is about. Calls go up and violations go down."
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