City’s Priorities Out of Order; Citizens Punished for Doing the Right Thing (a new series)
Above: The city has prioritized replacing a paved segment of terrace with grass, over repairing a pothole where children slip on ice (see story below).
MEJO introduction to series:
City of Madison ordinances, or lack thereof, reflect the city’s priorities in regards to public and environmental health and safety. The city’s over-enforcement of some ordinances—while others are rampantly violated with no consequences—also says a lot about city priorities.
In our environmental justice work in Madison, we have learned that the city—in spite of years of citizen pressure to do so—will not improve its weak noise ordinance, largely due to business and industry resistance. The existing noise ordinance is regularly violated, with no consequences to violators; some are actually rewarded. An industry can spill high levels of PCBs along city bike paths, and the city has no obligation to notify path users of their presence. There’s no ordinance on that. So the city, or someone else, could spill toxic chemicals on the sidewalk in front of your house and the city has no legal obligation to notify you, your neighbors, or the public who use it. City pesticide and stormwater laws are rampantly violated, and the city looks the other way—a long story in itself. The list goes on…
Meanwhile, the city issues citations to some citizens for violating the city’s absurd and obsolete residential yard laws—while ignoring thousands of others who violate it. Below, we share another story by Janette Rosenbaum about over-enforcement of city ordinances and punishment of a resident who was just trying to do the right thing.
Resident Makes Repairs to Property, Asks City to Do Likewise – Ends Up Prosecuted
By Janette Rosenbaum
Bennett Ramage didn’t expect to be charged with violations of city ordinances for trying to improve his property.
Ramage bought a rundown home on Ravenswood Road, on Madison’s southwest side, about two and a half years ago. In short order, he set about making much-needed repairs.
A year into this to-do list, he contacted the city to report a low spot along the curb in front of his house. He had noticed that the dip in the pavement tended to fill with water, and that this was especially problematic in the winter, when kids walking to and from school slid on the ice while trying to cross the street
The city didn’t respond to Ramage’s request for repairs. Eventually, frustrated by the lack of action, Ramage asked his alder, Matt Phair, for help.
In mid-September of this year, city inspector Bill McGuin finally came to look at the problem. Ramage explained his concerns, but McGuin didn’t feel the icy patch was a hazard, and said the city would not fix it.
Ramage can hire a contractor himself to repair the pavement, McGuin said, and the city would pay some of the costs of the work. But, any contractor chosen by Ramage would need to be approved by the city before work could be done, and after the pavement is fixed, if an inspection finds that the work is not up to the city’s standards, Ramage would be responsible for re-fixing it.
Ramage was disappointed by the outcome of this meeting, but he was astonished when, a week later, he received a letter from McGuin citing him for violations of city building code. The letter listed several issues.
First, McGuin had noted that a fence Ramage had recently installed along his backyard was exceeding height limits. Ramage has fixed the problem, and is awaiting re-inspection.
Second, the letter stated that Ramage’s driveway does not meet current requirements. The driveway, which extends beyond the edge of the house, has terrace and curb in front of this extra portion, instead of a widened apron. The section of terrace in front of the driveway is paved instead of grassed (see photo below).
Ramage says all of that is left over from the previous homeowner, who did not disclose the violation when they sold the property, probably because they didn’t know their driveway was illegal. Ramage is working on breaking up the pavement in the terrace, and plans to seed the area with grass.
The issue of the driveway itself is more complicated. The extra width is legal if it leads to an 8×18 parking spot alongside the house, according to city ordinances. Adding the parking spot would require Ramage to move his fence, and install additional gravel or pavement.
Ramage also could tear up the nonconforming asphalt, but this would leave him with insufficient parking. He could park in the street, but said it would look bad and create a hazard, while the widened driveway doesn’t seem to be hurting anybody.
In investigating the issue, Ramage found that his driveway is legal if it was widened prior to 1993, when the current ordinance went into effect. The city agrees with this, but says it’s Ramage’s responsibility to prove the age of the driveway.
Ramage was able to contact the previous owner of the house, who says the driveway was widened in 1992. No photos have turned up, though, and the city may not accept a statement unsupported by documentary evidence.
The previous owner also told Ramage that the low spot in the street was originally caused by an overloaded city truck riding too close to the curb.
Ramage plans to pursue the grandfathering exemption for the driveway. If that fails, he says he’ll install the extra parking spot.
The amount of work Ramage has put into the property is obvious. The kitchen looks like new, and even the garage appears to have been redone. Ramage says neighbors have been happy to see the house getting needed repairs. No one had complained about the violations McGuin cited, nor has the city claimed that any of the violations were creating a public hazard.
Ramage doesn’t mind adding the city’s requests to his to-do list, but can’t believe the citations were issued in the first place, apparently as punishment for asking the city to fix a problem in the public street.
Addendum 1, November 19 2016: Following a re-inspection, the city agreed that Ramage’s fence and terrace are in compliance. However, the city did not accept a signed, notarized affidavit from the previous homeowner, stating that the driveway was at its current width since 1992, as evidence that the driveway qualifies for the grandfathering exemption. The city continues to demand that Ramage either narrow the driveway or add the legal parking spot, and that he submit a highly-detailed plan, which must be approved by the city before any work can begin. Ramage is now consulting with a real estate attorney to explore other options.
Ramage is not the only Madison resident with a story like this. While citations are issued much too rarely to constitute consistent enforcement of the ordinances, they are issued often enough to look like a pattern of targeting specific residents – often those who, like Ramage, called attention to themselves by making a request of local officials. Calling out this behavior on the part of the city can lead to further harassment. One property owner who was targeted declined to talk to me, fearing retaliation by city inspectors.
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