Code enforcement officers are seldom welcome visitors

Matthew Lane • Aug 6, 2013 at 10:23 PM

KINGSPORT — Most people probably don’t want a visit from the city’s code enforcement officer. Some of the encounters turn heated, residents argue over whether or not a vehicle in the yard is junk or if the house is indeed dilapidated.

And while lawsuits have been threatened, and a few filed by residents, none of the encounters have turned violent, said Kingsport Police Department Detective John Blessing, who recently served as the code enforcement coordinator for the city for the past six years.

On Monday, a Pennsylvania man feuding with Ross Township officials over conditions at his ramshackle, trash-filled property, shot his way into a municipal meeting and killed three people before being tackled and shot with his own rifle.

Township supervisors took legal action against 59-year-old Rockne Newell for violating zoning and sewer regulations. Newell’s property includes an old camper in the front yard filled with wooden pallets, old railroad ties and trash.

In Kingsport, most of the complaints coming into code enforcement have to deal with high grass, junk cars and dilapidated structures, Blessing said.

“People say they’re working on (an old junk car) and some people are just hoarders and collect junk. Some say, I’m going to drive that car, but there’s a tree growing up through the hood of it,” Blessing said. “There’s people out there who think, since they own their property, they have a right to maintain it anyway they want to.”

However, state law and city ordinances place guidelines on property, from what can be kept on site, to the height of the grass to the structural conditions of the buildings.

“Some people just don’t want the government to come in and tell them what to do with their property,” Blessing said.

The way code enforcement essentially works is a person makes a complaint about a property and an officer responds, checks out the legitimacy of the complaint and determines if the situation warrants action.

“(Residents) get angry and emotions run high sometimes when a city official comes by and says you need to do something with your property. That’s when the finger pointing starts,” Blessing said.

When Blessing first came on board six years ago, code enforcement received about 300 complaints a year. Today, the number is more than 900 and will likely top 1,000 this year. And now that Blessing has moved out of the code enforcement division, Officer Melanie Adkins is the lone officer responding to complaints.

“Discussions can be heated and people get aggravated because they don’t want the city to come by and tell them their property is a mess or they don’t want strangers to come by,” Blessing said. “We do get threats all the time about suing the city and some have filed lawsuits, to stop the city from tearing the house down. None have been successful that I’m aware of.”

To report a suspected code violation, residents can call 224-2633 or visit the city’s website at www.kingsporttn.gov.

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