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Archive for Sunday, March 14, 1999

COUNTY WAGING JUNK BATTLE

March 14, 1999

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Keith Dabney, the county's director of zoning and codes, attributes the rise in junk complaints in large part to the ongoing suburbanization of the county.

The 2-acre property with its trees, house and outbuildings has been clean before.

When someone complained in March 1994, it was cleaned by May.

And when someone complained in February 1997, it was clean by December.

But in-between times, Douglas County resident Don Steele's property at 1706 N. 1500 Road east of Lawrence has been the temporary resting place for cars and trucks in various states of rust and repair.

That is the state it's in again, with layers of vehicles covering much of what would pass for front and back yards.

"We're back every bit as bad if not worse than previously," said Keith Dabney, the county's director of zoning and codes.

The property is just one of several in the county over which Dabney wages an ongoing battle in the name of the county's zoning regulations against junkyards. The regulations are in place to protect property values as well as public health, he said.

"We get those kinds of things over and over and over again," Dabney said. "You don't understand why they keep everything."

Growing caseload

Armed with an instamatic camera and certified letters, Dabney has more battles to fight these days.

After the county commission discussed and then updated the zoning regulations in January, complaints about junk vehicles and trashy lots jumped from about one a week to as many as five.

It is just the latest surge for a source of complaints that has been on the rise.

The county doesn't keep a tally, but a stack of letters sent to property owners in violation of junk regulations in 1997 measures about a half-inch.

Last year's stack is about three times as thick.

County officials say it's not because there is more trash in the county or even that the county is pursuing complaints more aggressively.

"I've always thought we've taken it seriously," Dabney said.

Dabney attributes the rise in large part to the ongoing suburbanization of county.

That means there are more people living and driving through the unincorporated areas of Douglas County, which translates into more eyes to see and be bothered by county clutter.

It also means more ears and more noses hearing and smelling rural life.

While Dabney can't do anything about the goats and pigs and chickens he gets calls about, he can address junked cars, piles of refrigerators and rows of discarded toilets.

According to the zoning regulations, the county defines a junk or salvage yard as an outdoor collection of discarded materials or more than one wrecked or broken-down vehicle.

County zoning

The North 1500 Road property, while not authorized for such a use, is pretty clearly in that category.

Owner Don Steele wouldn't deny that.

But he said privacy and freedom were reasons why he moved to the county a decade ago.

"I had purchased this property so I would be out of the city and away from the city regulation," Steele said.

Dabney said that is a common misconception.

"So many people do feel that when they buy land in the county they should be able to go out and do whatever they want," Dabney said.

But Dabney said the county zoning regulations have been in place since 1966.

Steele said he comes by his cars honorably.

Steele trims trees and sometimes will take old vehicles in trade for his tree work.

Steele said he then fixes those vehicles up and sells or trades them to jail inmates who work for him through a work-release program.

"If they were to take a good look at what I do and have some kind of license allowing me to do it ... I would be glad to conform and glad to buy their license," Steele said. "But giving me a date to have projects that I have in the works completed and my yard spiffy clean so it resembles a place in town is, I think, unfair."

According to Dabney, Steele doesn't have much recourse.

He could apply for a conditional-use permit to operate a salvage yard, though Dabney is pretty sure he wouldn't get it. Even if he did, he would need state permission as well, something he likely wouldn't get because of his proximity to the road.

The nearness of the cars to the road is part of the problem for Steele and his two acres. If he had more land and was able to hide his vehicles behind a screen of trees, he might not attract county attention.

Dabney responds to complaints and follows up on obvious violations, but the Douglas County commissioners have told him not to trespass to investigate stored vehicles that are not visually obvious.

"It's nothing personal," Dabney said. "We follow the rules."

According to the rules, Steele has until April 8 to clean up his property or get the vehicles registered.

Steele said he expects to do some of both. "I'm an honest person and a hard worker," he said. "I will conform to their regulation, and I will junk good vehicles."

If he doesn't, his case will be forwarded to the Douglas County district attorney's office, which then can pursue Steele in district court.

-- Kendrick Blackwood's phone message number is 832-7221. His e-mail address is kblackwood@ljworld.com.

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