There is a mess at 12th and Haskell in east Lawrence.
The property is the site of the 12th and Haskell Recycling Center, so a certain amount of mess is expected. Metal, scrapped cars, cardboard, paper, glass and all sorts of materials awaiting recycling are stored at the site. A good deal of the material is stored outside, just across the street from a long-established neighborhood.
But the mess at 12th and Haskell goes deeper than what can be seen by the naked eye. The situation also reveals problems with the city’s system of enforcing various codes aimed at making Lawrence a more livable community.
In February 2010, neighbors across the street from the recycling center filed a complaint with the city alleging excessive noise, litter, noxious fumes, and several other issues. More than 22 months later, the complaint still hasn’t been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.
At a recent Lawrence City Commission meeting, residents of the adjacent neighborhood presented compelling video and audio evidence of how great a nuisance the 12th and Haskell Recycling Center had become. It portrayed a business that produces industrial noise that can be heard inside homes, burning activity that produces plumes of black smoke, smashed vehicles piled up so high that not even a privacy fence screens them from view, and several other sights and sounds that no one would want as a neighbor.
Parts of this case are complicated. The property is zoned for residential use, but there are legitimate questions about whether the recycling center should be allowed to operate under a grandfather clause in the city’s zoning code. However, there are parts of this case that seem relatively simple. Regulations about noise, improperly stored materials, open flames and other such issues would apply to the property regardless of the zoning.
Several city commissioners said they were surprised that the city’s codes enforcement staff allowed the property to reach its current condition.
Perhaps they shouldn’t have been. The city has had instances before where they’ve let noncompliant facilities exist for too long. The most prominent example is the former MagnaGro facility in eastern Lawrence. The city took the extraordinary step of disconnecting the business from city water and sewer service because of evidence that the company was illegally dumping toxic materials in the city’s sewer system. But then the city continued to allow the business to operate without city services for three years in violation of the city’s code. The city did not force the business to vacate the premises until a fatal industrial accident drew public attention to the site.
The problem here is not that the city’s staff is unwilling to enforce the code. The city has dedicated employees who take such matters seriously, but they need clear direction from city commissioners about what enforcement strategy is expected.
The city’s staff has taken the approach of trying to work with property owners and businesses accused of violating city codes. That approach has merit, but it certainly can lead to individuals taking advantage of the system and neighbors being forced to endure a bad situation for longer than necessary.
City commissioners should have a formal discussion about their expectations for code enforcement, and the timeliness of such enforcement. These matters are always going to be contentious and produce a certain amount of mess. But they should not be allowed to drag on for two years or longer.