Lexington council committee weighs public-nuisance ordinance

Catholic Action Center against proposed law

ksheridan@herald-leader.comOctober 19, 2011 

B.W. Blanton Jr. and his uncle own nine properties near the Catholic Action Center, a homeless shelter and resource center on Winchester Road. He said he volunteers at the Salvation Army around the winter holidays.

However, he's upset about some disruptions that he said were caused by residents of the Catholic Action Center. That's why he spoke in support of a proposed chronic-nuisance ordinance at a meeting of the Lexington Urban County Council's Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

"The world has changed on Winchester Road," he said. He complained of people urinating on his property, which he says caused him to uproot his bushes. "I feel sorry for these people that they can't get in the center to use the restroom," he said. "But we don't deserve this."

If passed as is, the ordinance would increase penalties against owners for frequent disturbances on their property.

About 40 people turned out for the discussion, and several spoke. Opponents said the ordinance raises several legal issues involving due process and presents problems for non-profit and faith-based groups that provide services to possibly disruptive populations, such as the homeless. Supporters say it's necessary to protect the safety and serenity of Lexington's residents.

There is no exception in the proposed law for faith groups and non-profits, causing the leaders and beneficiaries of these groups to worry that the legislation could be used to target them. But Blanton said an allowance would create a double-standard.

Property owners near the Catholic Action Center complain about noise, drug use and violence in their community, and the center's founders said they fear the ordinance would hurt their mission.

The ordinance is scheduled to be altered and discussed again Nov. 1. However, several council members expressed concern about that deadline. Council members Doug Martin and KC Crosbie said it wouldn't give landlords sufficient time to review and respond to the ordinance.

Former Lexington police officer Keith Gaines and council member Peggy Henson have been working on the ordinance for more than two years. During his presentation at the meeting, Gaines said the ordinance is not meant to target anyone.

The proposed ordinance is similar to legislation in other cities and shares much of their language. But several council members expressed concern over what they see as nebulous words.

"The whole thing bothers me a little bit," council member Julian Beard said. "How would you define 'chronic?' "

Gaines said enforcement of the ordinance is dependent on an initial complaint and an officer's confirmation of the incident.

Martin, head of the public safety committee, also expressed concern about the language of the ordinance. In its current form, he said, landlords would be punished for behavior that is not criminal, and "it's hard for me to accept that."

He said that if due process isn't respected, "Someone who hasn't been found guilty of a crime can be punished."

Martin also expressed concern that landlords could be held accountable for the actions of others. But councilwoman Diane Lawless said that is actually a benefit to the ordinance.

Lawless said landlords whose tenants repeatedly create disturbances, such as drunkenness or fighting, are fined $15 for every three police visits.

"They see that as the cost of doing business," she said, adding that landlords allow unsafe, unhealthy or dangerous activities to continue in their buildings, risking the safety of law-abiding tenants, instead of evicting those responsible for the nuisance. She said landlords would rather pay the $15 fine than risk having a unit be empty.

Under the new ordinance, the maximum fine would be $2,000, for the fifth violation and subsequent violations; in addition, the city would gain the authority to close a property for up to a year.

Gaines said the ordinance would address the root of chronic disturbances, rather than police having to constantly deal with the same problems.

However, advocates for the homeless say similar ordinances have been used to target the poor in other cities.

Catholic Action Center co-founder Judy McLaughlin said she is especially concerned about the ordinance because her center helps people who have been turned away from other shelters for being disruptive. She said most of these people need social workers and mental health care, not to be turned away by shelters who fear being shut down for nuisance violations caused by the people they're serving.

"If it were passed, the effect it will have is on the most marginalized population. Everyone will tighten their restrictions," she said. Instead of regulations, she said, the center needs resources. If they had enough bathrooms to accommodate their needs, people wouldn't need to use Blanton's bushes as a bathroom, she said.

The public safety committee is slated to discuss the ordinance again on a date to be determined.

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