Saturday, August 9, 2008

Decriminalization of Certain Zoning Violations

In my blog post of August 5th, I indicated that I would speak to the six issues regarding illegal rooming houses which Councilman Jack Weiss surfaced during the August 4th council meeting. Instead of taking further specific action on changing the municipal code definition of family, the council decided to take a comprehensive look at the problem. All well and good, but as I have said many times before in this blog, changing a code that has never really been enforced or that has not been tested in court seems, shall I say, a bit odd. Nonetheless, no known governmental entity has ever eschewed oddity, to my knowledge.

One of the six issues is the decriminalization of part of the Bellingham Municipal Code with the objective, as I understand it, to provide a relatively easier, more effective and less severe means for implementation. The idea is to make infractions of the single family zoning code a civil matter, at least initially. Repeated offenses by the same party could progress to the level of criminal prosecution. I support this measure in general concept as it will ease the burden of proof. The central difference is that civil cases require a preponderance of evidence, that is, the “greater weight and value of the credible evidence, taken as a whole belongs to one side rather to the other side.” On the criminal side, proof of the offense is needed beyond a reasonable doubt, that is, a “fair doubt based upon reason and common sense, not an arbitrary or possible doubt.” (Quotes are from - Click here for a more extensive explanation.)

One could envision a sliding scale of sanctions such as increasing fines for repeated violations of the single family code to a certain threshold at which time additional offenses would revert to a criminal matter. This will ease the mind, somewhat, of those who are not comfortable with a stiff penalty for a first offense and prefer to see an “educative” process, although some offenders, was we note, are slow learners. Salisbury, Maryland has an entire code portion on Infractions and Civil Zoning Violations (click here to read that code). Perhaps our planners might want to contact the city management there for ideas. Jack Lennox is the Director of Planning and Zoning. He can be reached at or 410-548-4860.

Of course, all of the above is meaningless unless there is a credible threat of enforcement and that cases are handled expeditiously. Those of us who have made formal complaints on illegal rooming houses have found neither an expeditious process nor a comprehensible one. But that is another subject which I will take up shortly.

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