Beauty vs. Blight
By Gail Binkly
In Euclid, Ohio, it is illegal to cover the windows of your home with anything other than curtains, shades, or mini-blinds.
No taped-up newspapers, no blankets, nothing unsightly. Violate the ordinance and you could go to jail for six months or be fined $1,000. No such rule exists in Montezuma County. Its three municipalities all have some ordinances relating to visual aesthetics, but none are as stringent as Euclid’s — passed in June of this year and believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
Euclid represents one end of the spectrum when it comes to regulating visual blight. Many people believe Montezuma County represents the other end — virtually no regulation. The county land-use code discusses aesthetics in regard to commercial activities but has few rules in relation to personal residences.
In Montezuma County, you can decorate your plot of land with old tires, discarded mattresses, junk cars and rusty tractors, and no one will stop you, so long as your debris poses no health threat.
This blight is a source of distress to many citizens. Some worry that their own property values will be damaged; others just find the ugliness a blemish on the Southwestern landscape. The conflict arises from a difference in philosophy between people who view the land around a home as a work of art, and others who see it as a place to work — to chop wood, tinker with old vehicles, even gut a deer.
The issue has been a bone of contention for decades. Back in 1994, when Montezuma County had no landuse code and proponents were trying to get that issue onto the ballot, they used a slide show to make their case. Many slides showed images of unattractive homes and unregulated debris. Voters subsequently passed the question asking for a land-use plan. But, though the county did adopt a code in 1998, visual blight — the problem that many people most fervently wanted solved — was largely ignored.
For property-rights advocates such as Don Denison of Cortez, that is a good thing. “Who is going to be the one to decide what is trashy?” he asked. “And does that person really reflect society, or just special-interest groups?”
Denison said, like anyone else, he notices junky properties, but he doesn’t think it’s anyone’s business to dictate that someone’s residence look a certain way.
“I see some properties where I think, ‘Wow, if you’d spend a little time and clean it up, it wouldn’t look so bad’. “But then I say, ‘Maybe the real-estate agent across the way would have something to say about my property’.
“The question is, what is really important? And I believe what is really important is property rights. Private property rights are essential to our freedom. Without them we’re nothing.”
Denison believes the argument that trashy homes pull down the property values of adjoining places is largely bogus. “Properties are appraised by what the same kind of properties sold for within the area,” he said.
That’s true, according to Montezuma County Assessor Mark Vanderpool. By state law, assessors must use a “market approach” in setting a value on properties for tax purposes. That means the value is based on the prices of comparable homes that have sold recently.
“We’ve had a few cases since I’ve been here where people have challenged their assessments because neighboring properties were less than they had hoped, visually,” he said.
In general, however, the presence of “blight” nearby won’t affect property valuation much, because there aren’t enough sales of similar homes to generate the necessary data, he said.
So whether you have nice landscaping around your house or a yardful of clutter and cheat grass, it probably won’t affect your home’s appraisal by the assessor’s office.
But Vanderpool emphasized that this applies only to valuing homes for tax assessment. “One could argue that buyers sure notice such things, and they’d be right,” he said.
‘A home for everyone’
It’s difficult to quantify the harmful effects, if any, of visual blight. Unlike an obnoxious noise or stench, both of which can permeate homes even through closed windows, an unsightly view can easily be shut out. Noise has been shown to have harmful health effects, but no one says the same thing about junk cars.
Still, people value beautiful views; a scenic vista is soothing to nerves and spirits. And beauty can have a price in real dollars.
Homes that adjoin unsightly properties take longer to sell and sell for less than homes in so-called nice neighborhoods, according to Carol Stepe, broker/ owner of River Mountain Properties in Dolores.
Nearby blight can diminish a home’s value by 15 to 20 percent, she said, though it depends on how close the home is to the trash and “how much influence you think you might have on your new neighbor to help him straighten up.”
But Stepe, who has been in the realestate business 47 years, said there are buyers who don’t care about junk. “We say in our business, ‘There’s a home for everyone,’ and somehow that house is going to get sold.”
But even when they aren’t looking to sell their home, many people are disturbed by unsightly properties.
Bill Fulks of Pleasant View says old cars littering the county are a particular problem. “People should care about other people. When they start piling up old cars and a lot of junk that isn’t connected to a business, it’s a problem,” he said.
“I’m almost thinking somebody should require a tax on inoperable cars, especially on farm land. If people had to pay $100 a year for every car they didn’t use, I think it would probably make people think twice before they pulled those cars onto their property and let them settle in to rust and leave an eyesore for their neighbors.”
People like Denison say there is no need to regulate visual blight if it isn’t posing a health problem. They don’t want someone telling them how their property should look and want to keep government regulation of private lives to an absolute minimum. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the type of homeowner lampooned in the animated movie “Over the Hedge,” in which a shrewish woman shrieks endlessly about her property values and measures the length of people’s grass with a ruler.
In the middle are people who believe local governments ought to set some minimum standard to make the landscape enjoyable for all. In many ways, Montezuma County is poised between two extremes: the Wild West on one hand, and the tamed and regulated West on the other. It’s even true, geographically.
Dolores County to the west, with a population of under 2,000, has a planning commission and regulations concerning subdivisions, but no planning staff and no rules about aesthetics.
(The Dolores County towns of Rico and Dove Creek, however, do have rules in regard to blight; Dove Creek recently mailed 381 “clean-up” letters warning homeowners the town is enforcing trash and weed ordinances.) La Plata County to the east has a planning department with a staff of 16 and is developing a new, more detailed land-use code.
Yet even La Plata County does not regulate visual aesthetics for residential properties, according to Marianna Spishock, code-enforcement officer for the county.
“The only thing that’s regulated here [visually] are commercial or business uses,” Spishock said. “We have not adopted anything that would deal with junk cars, those sorts of things. We don’t have a junk ordinance. That doesn’t mean we won’t, but right now we don’t. And regulating all that would be huge.”
Spishock said there is some pressure to adopt rules regarding visual blight, but whether any will be incorporated in the new land-use code is uncertain.
Hal Shepherd, city manager of Cortez, says junk cars are the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of visual blight in the countryside. “Back East and in the Midwest, if it’s not licensed or operating, it has to be in an enclosed building,” he said. “Here, the difference is private property rights. But in other areas of the country there are limitations to how far you can go so that other people who drive down the street don’t have to look at this blight.”
Of course, municipalities typically regulate aesthetics more strictly than unincorporated areas. In Hamilton, Ohio, where Shepherd worked prior to coming to Cortez, “You had to paint your house if it was peeling, or put up siding,” he said. “I don’t think I’d even attempt [to implement] that out here.”
The city of Cortez has numerous regulations relating to aesthetics and residences. Among them are rules about the minimum size of homes, the height of buildings and fences, the shape of outbuildings (domes are frowned upon), and carports (new ones can’t be made of metal and must match the appearance of the house).
The city has adopted both the International Building Code and the International Property Maintenance Code, which regulates such diverse items as the height of weeds and the maintenance of gate latches. It also says peeling, flaking and chipped paint must be eliminated, inoperative motor vehicles can’t be stored on premises, and — in an odd note — that kitchens can’t be used for sleeping purposes.
Shepherd said the city enforces rules against junk. “We’ve had a couple homes where the yard is full of junk and debris. We tell them, if they don’t clean it, we will and then we’ll bill them.”
Sometimes, he said, there is a health concern, as when mosquitoes breed in water trapped in old tires, or rodents are attracted to garbage. “That’s the main reason to keep the yard clean.” In the county’s unincorporated areas, Shepherd would like to see greater regulation of visual blight.
“We have a beautiful environment and I hate to see it trashed by junk cars,” he said. “I don’t see the point of dragging them to your fence line and lining them up three and four deep.”
A slippery definition
But regulating visual blight is not as simple as telling landowners to shove their rusted wrecks into a garage. Visual blight is a little like the weather: Everyone complains about it but no one does anything about it.
That’s because defining blight can be slippery, as County Commissioner Dewayne Findley noted in a previous interview with the Free Press.
“You could probably drive around the county and pick six [properties] we agree on but the next six might be harder,” he said. “You might say ‘those are nice old farm tractors’ and the other person says it’s a bunch of junk.”
Municipal codes typically define blight as an accumulation of lumber, trash, scrap metal or debris; abandoned furniture or appliances; inoperative vehicles; or anything else deemed unsightly or a threat to property values.
But pinning down what’s “unsightly” or deleterious can be arbitrary. Some people view monster trophy homes as blight. Some are offended by “Victorian” colors such as pinks, purples and crimsons. (A pink house on a hillside near Durango caused great controversy in the late 1990s.) Others regard manufactured homes as an eyeball- searing affront.
Galen Larson, the Democratic challenger for Findley’s seat, says struggling over the definition shouldn’t be difficult.
“To say one man’s junk is another man’s treasure is a ridiculous statement,” Larson said. “Everyone knows what junk is. We should take pride in this community, and we should clean it up before it’s forced upon us by the new people that may be moving in.”
But he admits deciding whether to adopt more rules is difficult.
“That’s a tough one,” Larson said. “But if we’re going to attract people here, including the wealthy retirees we say we want, we’d better think about cleaning up the area.”
Creating a beautiful landscape isn’t as easy as waving a wand. The Montezuma County landfill doesn’t accept junk cars, and dumping one pickup load of trash can cost $20 or more. Belt Salvage near Cortez pays $40 a ton for old vehicles; a typical car might bring $50. But towing the car in could cost more than that.
Steve Chappell, who is challenging Findley for the commission seat in the Aug. 8 Republican primary, has suggested that the county could organize voluntary pick-ups of junk cars and the use of a car-crusher. The towing company and crusher could then split the money from the scrap metal.
Property-rights advocates see regulation of aesthetics as a form of economic discrimination. Landscaping can be expensive, as can replacing a roof or putting up siding — particularly if you have to hire someone else to do it.
“It’s a way for people to cast stones at somebody who isn’t as economically powerful as they are,” Denison said. “Special-interest groups and people moving in are trying to change everything we have here to reflect where they came from — and they left that place because they didn’t like it.”
But Shepherd maintains that neatness doesn’t have to cost money.
“When I was in Germany and Sweden in the 1970s, I stayed with some people who were poor,” he said. “But they had a very neat home and flowers everywhere. I said, ‘Gee, clean and neat doesn’t cost a lot of money’.”
Volunteer efforts can help, Shepherd added. Church groups have come to Cortez to paint houses and fix fences for free for elderly, low-income citizens.
“That was very nice,” he said. “I think it would be great if we could organize something to paint houses for needy people who need help maintaining their property.”
Denison is suspicious of such efforts. “If the elderly want help with something,” Denison said, “usually they would say, ‘Could you help me with my prescription drugs and my food and my transportation?’ Saying you’ll clean up their property is like saying, ‘Your place is offensive to me. I don’t really care about you. I care about what I see’.”
The debate will rage on, but some citizens believe people will voluntarily improve their properties as the region grows crowded and home prices rise. Stepe sees clean-ups occurring without government intervention, as large tracts are turned into subdivisions.
“A lot of these areas that have been subdivided have good covenants and are more valuable,” she said.
But though Stepe appreciates attractive properties, she doesn’t believe the county needs more regulations.
“People can move into a subdivision if they want stricter rules,” she said. “There are other people, and not always old-timers, who want to live the way they’ve always lived, and that’s fine.”