Most people in Hermiston have noticed the gas station on Highway 395, with broken windows and an awning in shambles, and wondered why no one has taken it down.
As Hermiston’s code enforcement officers will tell you, it’s not that simple. Whether a rusted vehicle in the front yard, overgrown trees or a destroyed building on the highway, code violations are the responsibility of property owners to fix, and it can be a long process getting them to comply.
Mike Marcum, one of two code enforcement officers for the Hermiston Police Department, walked around the vacant building and observed the damage, caused by a semi truck that several months ago backed into the building and then took off.
“That’s one we’ve addressed,” he said. “Right now we’re on standby.”
The department has been in touch with the owner and had a structural engineer go in.
“When will the awning come down? I don’t know,” Marcum said. “The property owner is still waiting for the insurance claim.”
The city has had a code enforcement officer for years, with Marcum, a former HPD sworn officer, in the role since 2012. The responsibility has bounced back and forth between different departments in the city. Since July, the police department took it over again from parks and recreation, and has added a second part-time code enforcement officer, former OSP Sgt. Tom Spicknall.
Marcum said while his job is to get people to follow city rules, he doesn’t want to babysit.
“We want to educate people first,” he said, adding that many times, a person won’t even know they’re in violation. Although a person is supposed to correct a violation within seven days, Marcum said on average it takes him three times of contacting violators before they take action. Even then, he said, if people ask for extensions, he’s willing to grant them. A citation is the last step. Even if a person is cited, he said, a judge will usually give them a chance to remedy the problem.
Officers said the goal is to make the area more safe and livable — in addition to being unsightly, run-down properties can also attract crime and other problems.
“We don’t like to tell people to cut their grass,” said Capt. Travis Eynon. “People believe these are pushing the envelope on personal rights — but somebody’s overgrown lawn may affect the neighborhood, creating a fire hazard or a rat harborage.”
Other violations can include parking a boat or camper on the street for too long, having a basketball hoop in the street, or trees growing over the sidewalk.
Ultimately, if the person does not complete the task, the city has a contractor that will do the work for them. The person gets charged for the cost of the work, plus a 10 percent fee, and the city will place a lien on the property.
Some violations are more glaring than others. Marcum will often walk through vacant lots littered with trash, or large items like shopping carts and appliances that people have dumped.
“We try to get a hold of any property owner with large vacant lots, to keep them cut down,” Marcum said. “By keeping them cut, we can see what’s in there, and they can see what’s in there. A lot of homeless people are looking for places where no one can see in.”
One such area is a vacant lot behind Taco Bell, with several trees and bushes creating a shelter. Noticing a makeshift tent under a low-hanging tree, Marcum walked up and found someone inside.
“Good morning,” he said, introducing himself, before informing the man he was breaking city rules by being there, and needed to move along.
Though Marcum knows people won’t usually be happy to see him knocking on their doors, he said he tries to make positive interactions with people.
“We’re not trying to break anyone’s bank,” he said. “We’re just trying to make them responsible so the city looks better.”
Many times, Chief Jason Edmiston said, the problems are on properties where the landlord does not live in Hermiston.
“At some point with chronic landlords, we may go straight to a citation,” he said. “It’s a waste of time for everyone to have to continue to babysit certain properties.”
The ordinances lay out specific violations, and are all publicly available on the city’s website.
Edmiston encouraged residents to call the city or police department if they have violations to report.
“If we wanted to be 100 percent proactive on code enforcement, there would be a lot of unhappy people,” he said. “We’re trying to balance between being proactive and being complaint-driven. But at the end of the day, the goal is to make sure the city doesn’t have hazards and look unappealing.”