Keeping watch on the neighborhood

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Todd Mishler | August 15, 2013

LAKE GENEVA — Some neighbors and city officials and many landlords would call Mary Weeden a nuisance.

However, the Illinois native and 16-year Lake Geneva resident sees her social activism from a much different perspective, and enough people have agreed with her to force major changes in the city's municipal code over the past several months.

(Read all the stories in this week's Walworth County Sunday HERE.

Because of Weeden and the Pleasant Street neighborhood watch group, which was formed in 2006, city residents are scrambling to keep up with what's been put on the books, namely in chapters 14 and 46.

The latter features two key revisions, a noise ordinance that was added in March and amended in April and a chronic nuisance ordinance that the city council approved unanimously in May.

Lake Geneva City Attorney Dan Draper drafted the new chronic nuisance ordinance.

“About a year ago we started looking at the idea of giving the old landlord registration and building code more teeth,” Draper said. “The Pleasant Street group had been pretty active and saying that some buildings weren't being kept up to par, a lot of it involving absentee landlords, and they felt things were deteriorating and getting pretty ugly, and residents' home values were declining.

“We tried to pass a building inspection ordinance and it was met with an uproar from landlords and some in the realtors association, so the (city) council decided not to pass anything,” Draper added. “Subsequently, the neighborhood group was outraged when the (landlord) registration wasn't passed. So, what could we do?

“That's when the police chief (Michael Rasmussen) helped formulate the chronic nuisance ordinance in trying to be proactive and add more teeth to it,” Draper said. “We adopted a lot of provisions that were in the Janesville code. At the same time, we already had much of the language on the books but nobody had implemented it or it was pretty vague. So the new ordinance defines exactly what the nuisances are, what the process is.”

That process likely would be still in limbo if not for Weeden and a handful of other active watch group members. She said a big part of their effort, and struggle, has been changing attitudes in addition to the physical look and feel of the neighborhood.

“It's an older part of the city, a blue-collar neighborhood with a lot of rentals,” Weeden said. “There always was a lot of politics involved, and they would let people get away with not doing anything. Basically we have a lot of absentee landlords ... We have single-family dwellings being divided up, we have places with windows with no screens and young children hanging out. ...

“We're the ghetto of Lake Geneva, and you know if this was happening in Maple Park or Eagle Ridge, there wouldn't even be a discussion and they'd get to the bottom of it. Money talks, you know it and I know it. But we've got two new council members, (Sarah) Hill and (Dennis) Lyon, so we're hoping it won't be business as usual. We just need the guts to do something about the issues.”

Going into detail

Al Kupsik is in his second term as city council president. He said city officials have responded to citizens' concerns and most parties are happy with the progress that's been made.

“It started with what was going on in the Pleasant Street neighborhood, which has a lot of rental units,” Kupsik said. “We went back and forth and some (on the council) were for it and some against it, but we wanted to get an idea of how best to contact property owners of rentals … tax records just weren't enough. So we hoped to create a registry of legal owners, so if issues came up, whether it involved violence, noise or whatever, we knew who to go to.

“Most people support the noise and (chronic) nuisance ordinances, most of which was created in 1998,” he added. “But one of the things that wasn't on our books was how to enforce all of these articles, and now it explains everything in much greater detail.”

Learning more

Royce DeBow is the Wisconsin Realtors Association governmental affairs director for southeastern Wisconsin. He conducted a workshop in June for city property owners to get them up to speed on the new ordinances and complimented what the city has done.

“It affects all property owners, and some changes were quite different than in the past, so it was a good idea that the Lake Area Realtors Association came to us, because of our role as an authority on all things real estate,” DeBow said. “We want to help educate property owners, whether commercial, residential or landlords.

“It was a pretty significant rewrite of their nuisance ordinance,” DeBow said. “It further defines two main categories. One part that most people think of when you say nuisance, most of them are police issues, but also the code nuisances such as violations of zoning codes. It provides for an enhanced ability to enforce … it basically has more teeth. It also better defines the appeal process, abatement and rights of residents. I believe they did a good, comprehensive job.”

Working with police

Weeden said that one key component in moving forward has been the cooperation of local law enforcement.

“We have developed an excellent relationship with the police department … Chief (Michael) Rasmussen, and Lt. (Ed) Gritzner has been at almost every one of our meetings,” Weeden said. “The police department is our primary advocate. If not for them and (former mayor) Bill Chesen, we wouldn't have gotten this far.”

Gritzner has worked with the Lake Geneva Police Department since 2005, and he said the organization has welcomed working with Weeden and her group. It also welcomes the ordinance changes.

“Their main concerns were things like blighted properties, old vehicles or garbage on lawns and buildings being run down,” Gritzner said. “They are the only group that conducts regular neighborhood watch meetings and is really organized. At the time I attended almost all of their meetings and still pop in once in awhile.

“But if there's an issue, they band together and don't hesitate to contact law enforcement,” Gritzner added. “There were a lot of complaints and some people have been upset for years, but we never heard about things. We want them to communicate with us. The Pleasant Street group knows our officers, and I wish we had groups like this in each district of the city, especially on the south side. They can be our eyes and ears so we can address issues better.”

Weeden said residents are happy with the nuisance ordinance because it's a good first step and a clearer process — but there's still work to do, meaning a landlord registration system should be another step in the right direction.

Kupsik said residents who attended meetings and city council members showed support for such an ordinance.

“We had committee of the whole meetings and the consensus of the council was that they were in favor of it, and some building owners were in agreement,” Kupsik said. “It would protect themselves and the neighborhoods. One of the issues we discussed was whether it would cover just rentals, or certain areas or the whole city. We decided it would be all property owners, and I believe the city council would have passed it.”

Draper said that a registration system would allow officials to know who the landlord was and make the necessary information more readily accessible when needed.

However, the issue was tabled because of Assembly Bill 183 that is waiting for Senate action in the state Legislature that could make many such municipal ordinances null and void.

AB 183 prohibits municipalities from enacting ordinances more strict than state law when it comes to various notifications landlords must give tenants, basically making it easier for landlords to evict tenants and dispose of their property, hold onto deposits and have vehicles towed. It passed the Assembly on a party line vote, 57-37, in June.

So, parties on both sides of the landlord registration equation wait to see what will happen.

Remaining vigilant

Regardless, Weeden said the watch group isn't about to relax when it comes to situations they believe hurt their neighborhood or the community in general.

“If they're letting their properties go, if they're not cooperating after so many complaints, then the police can start issuing citations,” Weeden said. “This used to be a nice area. Home ownership means everything … my property values have gone down 35 percent since the recession, and we want to bring them back up.

“Our three issues are safety, beautification and property values,” she added. “The city is always talking about the tax base, but the main thing is that if you raise the bottom, everybody benefits because we want to raise home values for the long term. We've made a lot of progress, and the message is that we aren't going to put up with some of this stuff.”




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