Appearances Matter: Avoiding Property Maintenance Complaints and Tickets

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Urban agriculture inspires a lot of strong feelings and, for many those strong feelings are overwhelmingly positive. In particular, many Detroiters have been drawn to urban agriculture for the multi-faceted benefits it provides. An urban farm or garden can take a vacant lot, which is a negative force in countless Detroit communities, and turn it into an empowering space where community residents come together to grow their own food for themselves and others. The food grown often provides a health benefit to communities that typically lack locational and financial access to fresh and healthy produce. Further, transforming a vacant lot(s) turns a negative economic driver into a positive economic driver as urban farms and gardens have been found to raise neighborhood property values by as much as 9.2%. On top of all of this, urban farms and gardens provide environmental benefits in the form of stormwater management  and social benefits to the surrounding community. What’s not to love?

Despite the many benefits described above, urban agriculture is not adored by all. Many people believe that agriculture in a City environment will draw rodents and other pests to a neighborhood or simply think that it’s ugly and don’t want to see it in their neighborhood. Another consideration is that many current Detroit residents moved to the City during the mid 20th century as part of the Great Migration that saw 6 million black southerners leave their homes for industrial centers like Detroit. Many blacks who are former-southerners don’t have fond memories of rural life. For many, rural life was defined by terror and agriculture, rather than being a positive force, was a tool of oppression. For these Detroit residents, the urban farm or garden across the street may be more than an eyesore; it may be regarded as a disturbing reminder of a past that they traveled far and worked hard to leave behind. 

When a neighbor has a dispute with their neighbor in some form or fashion, they often complain to the City. In the case of urban farms and gardens, many neighbors file a complaint with the Department of Public Works alleging that the farm or garden violates property maintenance rules. When such a complaint is made, an inspector from the Environmental Enforcement section comes out to inspect the property and make sure it is being properly maintained. If that inspector finds your property to be in violation of property maintenance rules, then a ticket may be issued. 

So what are these property maintenance rules? In short, every property owner must keep the grass cut to a reasonable level and ensure that any property waste that is on their property is properly stored and disposed of. While this may seem fairly simple, it can be a trap for the unwary. The most common property maintenance violation that I have encountered is the violation for having solid waste on the property. Solid waste violations are tricky for two reasons. First, the definition of solid waste as it exists in the City Code is largely unhelpful. Certain things are clearly designated as solid waste, such as downed trees and excavated stumps, paper, cardboard, yard clippings, and food wastes not being used for agricultural purposes. Further, certain things are clearly designated as not being solid waste, such as food waste if being used for an agricultural purpose and uncontaminated, excavated soil. However, outside of those examples, the line between solid waste and a product that has a productive use is vague. Second, the initial determination of what is and is not solid waste is made by an inspector from the Environmental Enforcement division. This is problem more so for urban farmers and gardeners that live off-site. For off-site farmers and gardeners, there is an increased chance that the inspector will inspect your farm when you are not present which makes it more likely that the inspector will issue you a ticket. While you will have a chance to contest the ticket at an administrative hearing, doing so will involve spending a day downtown at the administrative hearing as well as the stress that often accompanies such situations.

So far, we’ve talked about why neighbors might complain about your urban farm or garden, what typically happens when neighbors do complain, and the basic rules that govern how you must maintain your property. The next natural question is what can you do to ensure you don’t get ticketed. As mentioned above, the most common ticket is for having improperly stored solid waste on the property and the definition of what is and is not solid waste is not always helpful. The best way to avoid a ticket is to keep anything that an inspector may regard as solid waste in a container. It is important to realize that what you think of as a useful product may be regarded by an inspector as waste. For example, while you might be planning to utilize a stack of pallets for some productive purpose, an inspector may see them and presume they are garbage.

It is also important to remember that avoiding a ticket is not the same as avoiding a complaint and the subsequent inspection. If a neighbor files a complaint with the Department of Public Works and alleges that your property is not maintained in compliance with the property maintenance code, then an inspector is required to visit the property. Simply being subject to an inspection can be stressful. To avoid complaints, it is important to think of what you can do that goes above and beyond the law to avoid neighbors filing complaints. This may involve actively maintaining good relationships with your neighbors and asking them what they think a well maintained urban farm should look like.