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Prescott Council tightens code enforcement; changes would affect group homes

PRESCOTT - Strict new ordinances that will affect the owners of properties that house group recovery homes got unanimous approval by the Prescott City Council this week.

In consecutive 7-0 votes Tuesday evening, March 1, the council approved two new code-enforcement rules, both of which had their origins in earlier discussions about group rehab homes. (City officials have emphasized, however, that the new rules will apply across-the-board in the city; not just to group homes.)

The first ordinance will halve the amount of time that owners of residential properties have in grandfathered rights for "legal non-conforming uses."

Under the current city code, if a use that no longer conforms to the city's zoning code is abandoned, owners have a year to continue that use. Under the new code, that time will be cut to six months.

That could affect group homes that were grandfathered after the city adopted new buffer-zone and parking rules in April 2015 and September 2013.

After Tuesday's meeting, City Attorney Jon Paladini said the most common reason a group home becomes a legal non-conforming use is the city's move in 2013 and 2015 to impose a buffer zone between group homes (currently at 800 feet).

Already-existing group homes were allowed to remain after the implementation of the buffer zone, but any new homes are required to comply with the distance requirement.

Paladini pointed out that majority of Arizona cities also have a six-month legal non-conforming use requirement.

The city ordinance will apply only to residential properties. Non-residential zones will continue under the current one-year presumption for abandonment of legal non-conforming uses, according to a city memo.

That distinction prompted a question from retired Superior Court Judge Ralph Hess about the rationale for the difference.

Paladini responded that legal non-conforming uses "tend to have a greater impact in a residential zone."

The second ordinance deals with chronic disruptive behavior in Prescott homes, including group rehab homes, rental homes housing numerous college students, and single-family homes.

Under the new code, the city will place more responsibility on property owners to control disruptive behaviors - fighting, brawling, loud music, or illegal drug use - that occur in their properties.

In searching similar ordinances in other Arizona communities, Paladini said his department found that "the ordinances tend to be in communities that are college towns."

Ultimately, he said, his department "mirrored this after Tempe."

The code will charge the owners of the disruptive homes a special service fee for repeat offenses. Paladini said the city would use the county tax assessor's rolls to find the owners of the problematic properties, and send them a notice.

Although the city will not charge for the first complaint, it will charge the owner $500 for the second disruptive activity within 60 days. For the third disruption, the city will charge $1,000, and $1,500 for the fourth and each subsequent activity.

Paladini said the owner would have the option of paying the fee, or coming up with a mitigation plan for dealing with the disruptions. Paladini said the fee is not intended to be a penalty, but rather, a tool for the city.

That prompted Councilwoman Billie Orr to suggest that the fees should be even higher. "I don't see these as being punitive enough," she said, maintaining that many neighbors have suffered from repeated disruptive behavior.

"I'd like to go on record as saying, let's get ahold of this problem," Orr said.

Hess questioned the ordinance, however, maintaining that it would place the liability for the disruptive behavior vicariously on the property owner, "without due process."

He added that the disruptive behaviors included in the ordinance are already covered in the city's criminal statutes.

But others in the audience voiced support for the ordinance. Thanking the council for "showing backbone," local resident Richard Steelman said passage of the ordinance would "make thousands of people happy."

The two new ordinances are scheduled to go into effect in 30 days.

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