Inspection warrants approved by City Council vote
Published: October 12, 2011
Lynchburg’s controversial zoning inspection warrants proposal was narrowly approved by City Council after a lengthy discussion and impassioned public hearing Tuesday night.
The ordinance will authorize zoning inspectors to seek court-ordered warrants in cases where property owners refuse an inspection. The warrants would only be allowed when inspectors are investigating violations of residential occupancy limits or unauthorized land uses.
Twenty-one people spoke against the ordinance during a hearing, decrying it as an unnecessary and unconstitutional infringement on the public’s civil liberty.
“The zoning staff says this will just be another tool in their tool box,” said Teri Spence, a Diamond Hill resident who has actively campaigned against the proposal. “I believe the tool they speak of is intimidation.”
Opponents of the ordinance included Lynchburg Tea Party members, a real estate agent, a Romanian immigrant who likened the proposal to the domineering tactics of his home country’s government and an attorney for Liberty Counsel, who urged council to “err on the side of freedom.”
A handful of supporters also came forward Tuesday night. Six people spoke in favor of the ordinance, calling it a useful measure that would help address unsafe conditions in the city.
Katie Cyphert recounted what she described as an “unbearable” experience she had years ago with a neighbor on Rivermont Avenue.
“The people partying all night, getting out of cars with beer in their hand, the overt drug dealing,” she said, adding city administrators said they were powerless to help at the time and neighbors ended up having to devote themselves to monitoring activity and making 911 calls in hopes of ending the out-of-control behavior.
“It took months and when you live near one of these properties, it is pervasive,” she said. “… It’s all night and all weekend. It’s not fair and it’s not safe.”
After the public hearing was closed, council discussed the matter for another hour while opponents of the proposal held up a wall of signs urging them to “Vote NO.”
Perrow said while he sympathized with those battling problem neighbors, his “base-bone belief” was that personal liberty had to come first. Helgeson said the ordinance would criminalize even well meaning citizens who commit zoning violations and intruded too far into people’s privacy.
Cary said he questioned the need for such a potentially dangerous ordinance given that zoning officials have only cited two cases where they felt warrants would be useful.
“Does it make sense to adopt a new policy or ordinance based on one or two cases?” he asked. “Of course not. And while we may trust our current city officials, my experience is that government powers rarely shrink. On the contrary, they expand. That leaves this council member with serious concerns if this ordinance passes.”
The council members supporting the ordinance said they felt the revised language introduced in June provided important and adequate safeguards to ensure citizen rights are protected.
Nelson, who wrote the amendments, noted that property owners and tenants would be afforded the right to testify against warrant requests in court, an opportunity not provided in other types of legal case. He said the ordinance was written to ensure that it was only applied in intended ways.
Gillette said the city had a responsibility to protect vulnerable tenants who suffer at the hands of irresponsible landlords.
Foster said she had not supported the original version of the ordinance, but was reassured by the added checks and balances introduced since then. She also said she was persuaded by the hardships faced by people like Cyphert.
Johnson noted that his constituents in Ward II, an area that includes the inner city, are disproportionately affected by bad landlords.
He encouraged opponents to “ratchet it down a notch” and read what is being proposed.
The supporting council members also noted that the ordinance is not introducing any new zoning regulations or restrictions; it is creating another enforcement tool for existing regulations."