For the past 18 months, Camas resident Debbie Nichols has spent most of her time in Seattle caring for her mother, who is suffering from dementia.
Nichols’ constant absences created some problems at her home on Franklin Street near downtown. The yard was becoming overrun with blackberry bushes, and random debris from house improvement projects in various states of completion had been scattered around the area.
“I was put in a position where I had to stop everything I was doing to take care of this situation,” Nichols said. “It’s not exactly what I had planned. Those blackberries grow out from the railroad tracks and can get out of control if you don’t have the time to (take care of them), and I haven’t had the time.”
Tami Strunk, a code enforcement officer for the Camas Police Department, had been made aware of the situation and tried to help Nichols in any way she could.
Strunk didn’t want to penalize Nichols with a code violation, which comes with a fine of up to $350. Instead, she asked for help from Acts Church Camas outreach director Todd Roy, who had previously told Strunk that church members would be willing to lend assistance to people in situations such as Nichols’.
On April 19, 54 people — eight from Acts Church Camas, and the rest from Vancouver-based Flash Love, a nonprofit organization that provides leadership skills to teenagers — met at Nichols’ house with shovels, wheelbarrows, rakes, gloves, extension cords and weed-wackers in hand. Somebody turned on a boombox playing worship music, and the group went to work.
One hour and 45 minutes later, Nichols’ yard was clean.
“After we were done, it was so rewarding to know that we’ve blessed multiple people,” Roy said. “Helping people, that’s really what we want to accomplish in our community. We’ve got the volunteers, we’ve got the resources to help people in need, and we want to get the word out.”
Common violations include the accumulation of garbage, junk or other materials, or inoperable or unlicensed vehicles on property; overgrown vegetation and noxious weeds; abandoned property; unsafe fences; unsafe sidewalks; vision clearance obstructions; and littering and illegal dumping.
Strunk said the city of Camas received about 300 complaints of possible code violations last year via the CamasConnect 24/7 mobile app and phone calls. The city of Washougal has received 700 to 800 complaints of possible code violations per year between 2014-18, according to code compliance officer Sherry Montgomery.
The penalty for a code infraction in Camas ranges from $300 (non-hazard nuisance) to $450 (public health safety and welfare). In Washougal, offenders pay $250 one day after a period of 10 business days; $500 on the second day; and $1,000 on the third day and beyond.
Both cities receive complaints via phone, email, website and walk-ins.
Montgomery said she issues fines only “as a last resort.” If a citation carrying a civil penalty is issued in Washougal, the property owner has 30 days to pay the fee. If the fee goes unpaid, the city can file the unpaid balance as a lien against the property.
“We strive to remedy violations without the use of fines. We aim to educate our constituents first and foremost,” Montgomery said. “We attempt to help them cure their violations by any means available to us when we can, and that does include the use of volunteer groups such as churches and civic groups.”
Strunk has a similar policy. She said she didn’t issue a single ticket for a code violation last year.
“We’d rather have people put the money toward fixing the issue instead of paying the ticket or going to court,” she said. “(If somebody couldn’t pay their fine), I would try to do the same thing that I did with Debbie, but each case is unique.”
Nichols said she had “mixed feelings” about the situation. While she was thankful for the help, she was disappointed that she wasn’t able to retain full authority over the project.
“I do appreciate that they helped me. It took a lot of work to get all of the blackberries out of there,” said Nichols, who has lived in the house for the past 20 years. “But I wasn’t excited about it. I don’t like giving up control of my yard and personal property to anybody. That’s just my nature. I like to be in control of what’s going on with my place. It was difficult for me.”
Strunk said she was pleased when she heard that Nichols had accepted Roy’s offer of assistance.
“Her yard just needed some organization and tender loving care,” she said. “I was hoping that Debbie would allow them to do that. It’s a feel-good thing. Camas is unique. People here reach out to people in need (and prioritize) helping their neighbors.”
Local volunteers lend a helping hand
There are other local examples of volunteers assisting potential code violators.
Vancouver-based Evergreen Habitat for Humanity (EHFH) launched the “A Brush with Kindness” program in 2010 to partner with low-income homeowners in need of exterior home repair.
Melissa Edwards, EHFH’s family services manager, said the program has completed 56 projects since its inception, with about 10 of them involving code violations.
“Most of the situations with code violations involve disabled (people),” she said. “It’s overwhelming (for them). They know what their home has become, and they can’t get caught back up. They no longer have the capacity to manage these projects themselves. They get depressed about the state of their own home. It makes them feel bad. When we come out we want it to be a positive experience. Our job is not to make the homeowner feel bad. Once things are cleaned up, the homeowner feels better and relieved and proud of the home again and grateful for program.”
The program was awarded a $5,000 grant from the Camas-Washougal Community Chest last year. A portion of those funds was earmarked to assist 72-year-old Washougal resident Erwin York, a disabled veteran who had code violations for overgrown lawn, scrap and debris on his property.
A group of EHFH volunteers performed yard cleanup, brush removal, painting, and step and handrail repair on Sept. 21-22.
“It was a big project. It took a couple of days. We had to get a dumpster,” Edwards said. “(Erwin) was a nice man. He got out there to work with the volunteers. He wanted to be a part of the solution, and he was very appreciative for all that was done. It was a good project all the way around.”