The city is taking the first steps to change zoning ordinances that regulate rental property throughout Lexington, but questions remain:
How will these changes be enforced?
What penalties will landlords face if they violate the new restrictions?
Enforcement procedures have not been established, and penalties for violations have not been set, said Dewey Crowe, director of building inspection, which enforces zoning regulations. "We are going to be working with the law department to develop enforcement procedures."
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Among other things, the new rules would limit the size of additions to single-family homes and limit the number of unrelated people who could live in the same house.
The proposals follow years of complaints from people living in neighborhoods around the University of Kentucky, where numerous houses have, in effect, been converted from single-family homes to dorm-story facilities for students.
Even with the new rules, building inspection will depend on neighbors to report possible infractions, such as too many people living in one rental house. "It will be complaint-driven, as it is now," Crowe said.
Molly Davis, president of the Elizabeth Street Neighborhood Association, said it seemed "unrealistic to put the burden totally on the neighbors to do the policing."
But she added, "I think that's simply where we are right now."
Attorney Mike Meuser, involved in crafting zone changes, said neighbor complaints to building inspection are "just the way things work. Building inspection has to investigate and determine what is going on."
He said there is not "a magic wand" the city can wave and know exactly what everyone is doing.
Devising methods to enforce the proposed changes was a major concern of the attorneys who drafted them, Meuser said. They requested that a separate set of guidelines be written in understandable language to "assist building inspection with enforcement."
Last week, Chris King, the city's director of planning staff, was at work drafting guidelines to describe the intent behind each change and to give examples of how the attorneys thought the changes should be implemented.
Davis said she was "very heartened to hear there is a clear text to go with these zoning amendments to use in real-life situations. It's a great first step."
Building inspection cannot enter a private residence, even if a zoning violation is suspected. That will not change with the new zoning amendments.
"We knock on the door. A tenant or a landlord has to let us in. That's how we get inside," Crowe said.
The law department has informed Crowe that if his inspectors are refused entry, the city can go to court to obtain an administrative search warrant. "We were told that's an option we're able to use," he said.
Crowe said he did not know of any cases in which building inspection has ever taken that step.
When violations are not corrected, the city can file a criminal complaint in district court, asking the judge to levy a fine of $10 to $500 for each day of violation. As a last resort, the city can file a lawsuit in circuit court or request an injunction.
"Usually we get compliance through notification letters sent to the property owner and the threat of taking them to court," Crowe said.
The seven proposed zone changes approved by the Urban County Council last week originated several months ago with the council's Planning Committee.
Three of the changes were controversial, dealing with the definition of family for zoning purposes and tightening restrictions on additions at the backs of small houses.
After "not seeing much in the way of consensus emerging among council members" on what should be done, Mayor Jim Newberry assembled an informal group of landlords and neighborhood representatives at an invitation-only meeting to discuss issues. The thoughtful, well-reasoned points made on both sides, even though there were years of mistrust to overcome, impressed the mayor.
Newberry, an attorney and experienced mediator in his former law practice, saw possible areas of common ground. He convened the group a second time. From that point, city law commissioner Logan Askew got a conversation started between lawyers representing the opposing sides.
"The mayor started the ball rolling," Davis said. "But it's the lawyers to whom the credit goes for reaching the compromise."
The attorneys and city planner King met for four days in eight-hour sessions before arriving at a series of compromises to help regulate rental property. They agreed on zoning changes that both sides said will help stabilize and preserve neighborhoods near UK.
On Thursday, the council gave first and second reading to the compromise package of seven zoning amendments plus a new change that prohibits roomers in single-family neighborhoods.
The changes face 60 days of review, public hearings and possible modifications by the city's Planning Commission, then they will return to the Urban County Council for final approval.
The changes have "a lot of support," Crowe said. "I think we'll see some version become law."