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Property maintenance ordinance change just barely makes the cut

In a rare 3-2 vote, the Excelsior Springs City Council on Monday night just barely passed an amendment to the municipal code that defines the responsibilities for maintenance of sidewalk, curbs, pavement, retaining walls, litter and overgrown vegetation.

Mayor Pro Tem Brad Eales and Councilman Brent McElwee voted against the ordinance presented on Monday after most of a year’s worth of study.

Public Works Director Chad Birdsong said there had been a few minor adjustments made since the last time the council reviewed the new wording for the code during a work session.

According to Birdsong, the effort to redo the code started out with the need to clarify some maintenance issues. Traditionally, property owners and/or residents have been responsible for making sure their sidewalks, driveways, curbs, retaining walls and various other features remained in good repair. This responsibility included maintenance of some things that were on the city right-of-way.

During work sessions, there was extensive discussion about whether property owners or tenants should be responsible for all such maintenance. There was little dispute over whether those individuals and families should take care of things like mowing, and cleaning up trash and yard waste. But more expensive and involved maintenance, such as sidewalks and retaining walls, were discussed at length, with some council members and city staff believing that the city should take some responsibility, especially for property features that primarily benefit the community, such as a retaining wall along a property’s edge.

In addition, during work sessions it was pointed out that the sidewalk program begun a number of years ago had never really taken hold. While a handful of people had taken advantage of the program—which provided city assistance either for removing an old sidewalk or buying the concrete for a new sidewalk—most did not.

It was further noted that in some of the areas of town where sidewalks are in the worst shape, the residents can’t always afford to maintain these features and the landlords often do not step up.

In fact, during Monday’s meeting Councilwoman Sonya Morgan noted that in many cases, it was difficult for property owners to fix sidewalks, and Birdsong added that this was true especially for neighborhoods where the sidewalks are done one property at a time.

He said that sidewalks are more aesthetic and durable when they are done all at once, with a single installer who can make sure the grade is correct and the sidewalk lines up properly.

But a new program that would provide funds to repair sidewalks hasn’t happened yet. Eales, in the discussion that led up to Monday’s vote, noted that he believed he had been the most vocal about the sidewalk issues.

When it comes to making sidewalks the property owner’s responsibility, he said, there is a certain amount of subjectivity because in some cases it boils down to the opinion of the code enforcement personnel.

“I wish we were also adopting the repair program we discussed,” Eales said.

While sidewalks were specifically mentioned on Monday night, City Attorney John McClelland said some of the other changes to the code dealt with other property features. For example, he said, a strict reading of the old ordinance technically allowed noxious plants such as poison ivy, as long as the property owner kept the height of the plants to less than eight inches.

The new wording, he said, prohibits poisonous weeds of any height.

In general terms, the ordinance approved Monday night requires property owners or occupants to keep sidewalks, driveways, parking spaces, curbing and retaining walls free of subsurface heave or settling. It will also be unlawful for these property features to be uneven or otherwise hazardous, be littered with trash or debris, or allow standing or pooling water. Steps must also be taken to keep mud from being tracked onto the public streets or alleys.

In addition, the code requires weeds or excessive vegetation to be kept under a height of eight inches for developed parcels of land, and under 12 inches for undeveloped land. Exceptions are made for cultivated crops such as brome, alfalfa, timothy, clover or other hay grasses on undeveloped parcels larger than three acres. In large parcels of undeveloped land, however, no excessive growth will be allowed within 25 feet of adjacent roadways or property lines abutting commercial or residential lots.

The wording adopted on Monday night also prohibits the sweeping of litter from any building or lot into any gutter, street, alley or right-of-way, and requires owners or tenants of property to keep their sidewalks and rights-of-way free of litter.

The “yes” votes from Mayor Ambrose Buckman, Councilwoman Sonya Morgan and Councilwoman Sharon Powell were just enough to offset McElwee’s and Eales’ “no” votes, and neither Eales nor McElwee wished to make any further comment; they said they would let their votes speak for themselves.

By Eric Copeland • eric@leaderpress.com

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