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According to today’s Newton Tab, the Board of Aldermen is considering implementing a new public nuisance ordinance targeted at residents who have too much junk outside their home.

If you knew much about my own home you might think I’d be an avid supporter of this new ordinance.  Our house abuts a pair of side-by-side houses that are THE problem properties in Upper Falls.  Everyone in the neighborhood has a different name for these properties and none of the names are very flattering.  For as long as we’ve lived here, the buildings have been a mess, the yards have been full of crap, and a few of the tenants have been problems.  Worse yet, because its Upper Falls, the plots are quite a bit smaller than most of the city and so the trash filled back yards are about six feet from our back door.  So you might think if anyone in this city should be applauding this new ordinance it would be us.

While I certainly appreciate the problem the ordinance is aimed at and I sympathize with the intent of the new rule, as currently written I think it’s bad law.   I’ve got two big concerns.

According to the Tab “The ordinance says the city can declare these properties a public nuisance if they cause adverse affects on the health of neighbors, diminish use and enjoyment of neighboring properties, or produce hazardous or harmful conditions”.   That highlighted phrase rings my alarm bells.   Health and safety concerns I have no problems with but defining a violation of a law in terms neighbor’s perceptions is a formula for all sorts of problems.

Likewise, in the details of  the ordinance there are similar problems.  You are in violation of the ordinance if you have a substantial amount of “junk and debris” on the property.  A “substantial amount” is defined as 375 cubic feet.  That’s fine, it’s an objective measurable quantity.

The other trigger for the law is “a condition of overgrown vegetation” and that’s defined as “Any weeds, grass, bushes, or other shrubbery which are so untrimmed or unkempt that they present a reasonable expectation of harboring or attracting rats and vermin, or concealing pools of stagnant water.”  Once again my alarm bells ring.    It’s clear that this phrasing is trying to somehow turn an aesthetic problem (overgrown vegetation) into a fictional public health problem (attracting rats and vermin).   Now if the real problem with overgrown weeds or bushes was that they attracted vermin than all of our park lands would be rat infested hell holes.

According to the Tab, Alderman Dick Blazar told the committee “that the ordinance would be used rarely” and Alderman Danberg said “this change would impact fewer than a dozen properties in the city”.   I’m sure that’s their intent, but I don’t see how a law written with this kind of language can be limited to just those properties that they have in mind.

If there is to be a new Public Nuisance Ordinance enacted it should be written with clear, unambiguous, objective language, otherwise it will inevitably be used as a legal tool in all sorts of unintended disputes between neighbors.

One comment by Alderman Blazar stood out – “these people, I think, in some senses are, hoarders who are outside instead of inside.”  I think he’s absolutely right.   This new new law is intended for these “outside hoarders” who have mental health issues.   An overly broad Public Nuisance Ordinance will not have much effect on their problems but is likely to create lots of other unintended problems.