Saying they do not want to rush through the process, members of the St. Clair Planing and Zoning Board said they will continue to take their time trying to establish rules and regulations for an occupancy permit program within the city limits.
During its April meeting last week, the board again made no decisions as it discussed the matter for the fifth consecutive month.
“We’ve started with nothing, and have come up with this,” board Chairman Myrna Turner said after members leafed through some of the updated proposed permit regulations prepared by City Inspector Jeremy Crowe. “We still need to spell some things out for everyone’s benefit. This does take time. We do need to make sure we’ve gotten input from others.”
Turner told fellow board members to take the proposed occupancy permit program information and requirements home and “read it, study it and mark it up” and be ready to come back again in May to discuss it further.
“We’re just not ready yet,” Turner said about making a decision.
Some of the potential sticking points include deciding what will be included in “minimum housing and life safety standards” that must be addressed and repaired, if necessary, before any new occupant moves into a residence.
Some of the proposed regulations call for extensive repairs to be made before a new tenant could move in and receive an occupancy permit. Concerns have centered on what kind of needed repairs would be classified as “life threatening” and therefore required to be taken care of before the new occupant lives in the home.
Crowe has put together proposals for minimum housing and life safety standards that the board will continue to look at and discuss. Those were looked at by board members on Monday.
They include items relating to structural, mechanical, electrical, fire, carbon monoxide, plumbing and general safety. Both the interior and exterior of the residence would be inspected.
The regulations mainly would apply to rental properties.
Other items mentioned during the April 9 meeting were establishing a grace period to comply with the program once it is adopted by the city’s board of aldermen. The time frame kicked around was one year. Also, determinations may be made based on the age of the residence.
“Some things that were not in violation 20 years ago would be now,” board member Euvalda Young said.
Crowe said some items on older homes could be grandfathered into the regulations while other things — such as having working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors — would not.
The board was in agreement on that point.
“We can nitpick this thing to death,” said Mayor Ron Blum, who attended the meeting. “There is descretion that comes into play here. We have issues with a lot of things in here (regulations) and how we’re going to approach them. It’s a matter of how you will define them in the code.”
One thing that has been stressed in both past and current discussions about the occupancy permit program is that the reason to have the regulations is for the city to do everything it can to ensure the safety of residents.
“There have to be minimum life-safety standards,” Blum said.
“We do not want people living in unsafe houses,” City Administrator Rick Childers said.
There was some discussion if the regulations could be split into “minimum life saving” and “other.”
“I think we need to spell these out for the benefit of everyone,” board member Doug Komo said.
“We have to somehow in what we’re doing here reference what the life-safety standards are,” she said. “We need to make sure those would be addressed.”
“We need to make these as flexible as we can, but maintain life safety standards,” Blum said. “We need as much information as we can get. This could take a while, but we need to make sure we do it right.”
The city planners had discussed having a public hearing on the proposed occupancy permit program next month, but they decided against it last week.
“We’re not that far along yet for that,” board member and Ward 2 Alderman Travis Dierker said.
Tyson Quattlebaum, who owns several rental properties in St. Clair, said he is all for the program, but he asked the board to make sure everyone is held up to the same standards, including homeowners.
“I want to hold rental people up to high standards,” he said during the meeting. “But if people next door own their home and junk it up... it gets a little frustrating.”
Turner asked Quattlebaum for his patience as the city works through the process to establish the regulations.
Blum told Quattlebaum he made a valid point, but he also said that currently the city is operating on a complaint basis as far as housing code violations.
“This would give us a better tool to take care of these things,” the mayor said.
However, Childers cautioned that the city does not have enough manpower to respond promptly to a high number of complaints on a timely basis.
“If everyone in town who was concerned about a property calls in a complaint, we don’t have near enough staff,” the city administrator said.
“Give each of us a badge,” planner Terry Gasaway said in response. “I’d like to knock on a few doors and say, “Sir, do you realize what your property looks like?’”
As the meeting wound down, Blum reminded the board that whatever regulations are approved, they always can be updated and improved.
“Whatever you decide is not set in stone,” he said. “Ordinances can be changed.”