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Thread: Processing zoning complaints

  1. #1
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    Processing zoning complaints

    I have some questions regarding the process that others have for handling zoning complaints.

    Typically, most of our complaints are taken over the phone, with a small % taken by a resident who stops into the office. I generally take notes and then fill in one of our "Zoning Complaint Forms". We make it a practice to ask for the complainer's name, number and address, telling them that it would be kept confidential.

    I am in the process of updating this form and making it much more official looking. I would like to make it a standard practice that if a resident wishes to make a complaint, that they are required to fill out the form, including their name, etc. If the form is not signed, then we would not investigate This would basically end the process of staff taking complaints via the telephone. I am also hoping that by requirnig a signature, I can stem the amount of complaints that are driven by neighborhood disputes.

    I would also like to put this form online to be filled out, but I'm not sure how this would affect the signature requirement.

    What are other municipalities' process as far as receiving zoning complaints?
    "I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany"

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    We have a one page form, called a BEIF form (I think it stands for By-law Enforcement Information form) that gets filled out with all of the information. The person is not required to sign it, but it is preferred.
    "your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part!"

  3. #3
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    This is essentially a political decision. Your municipality on the one hand records the complainers' name and on the other hand assures them their complaint is 'anonymous'. The difficulty here, though, is that once an employee writes down a name it ceases in fact to be anonymous. Any interested party could obtain a copy of the complaint form under the Freedom Of Information Act and see for themselves whoever is complaining (if known). If the municipality truly wishes to protect anonymity then it should not even ask who is filing a complaint. If the ultimate goal is to cut down on neighbor dispute related zoning complaints then by all means require folks to sign all complaints in blood. It will help reduce those numbers (although not entirely eliminate).
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

  4. #4
    Cyburbian SW MI Planner's avatar
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    We just take them via phone. Staff will investigate and follow up. I don't know that you can keep a complainant confidential can you? Especially if you have a written complaint on file. (yah, what Maister said)

    I personally don't mind taking phone calls. I am only one person, and even it is a small community, I can't be everywhere all the time. I like a little help now and then!

  5. #5
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    The state of Michigan has provisions in its FOIA for keeping personal information regarding law enforcement procedures confidential. I'm not sure this would relate to zoning enforcement and I'm not aware of any case law regarding this.

    I guess I'm just been dealing wit a lot of "neighborhood disputes" recently and I'm trying to come up with ways around it. Now that I think about it, the problem may be with some of our ordinances being to vague and/or unenforcable.

    Well.....off to the drawing board.....time to make those ordinances more enforceable
    "I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany"

  6. #6
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by btrage
    I have some questions regarding the process that others have for handling zoning complaints.

    Typically, most of our complaints are taken over the phone, with a small % taken by a resident who stops into the office. I generally take notes and then fill in one of our "Zoning Complaint Forms". We make it a practice to ask for the complainer's name, number and address, telling them that it would be kept confidential.

    I
    how is it confidential - isn't it a public document once it's written and filed with you? i guess others below have said that...

    i'm on the fence (no pun intended ) of being able to just call in a complaint - it's not a matter of motive, or at least we shouldn't look at motivation - if it's a violation, then it is what it is - and i know that when neighbors find out who called on them that can make neighborhood relations worse

    so, i'm okay with anonymous calls - they just lose their right to appeal the response or lack of response by the enforcement authority if they don't formalize their complaint

    my last building inspector always allowed anonymous complaints on thep hone - he would do a drive-by and then say, hey i was driving by and noticed you etc. etc. which really took the fear out of the complainer and worked well

    keep track of the complaints (how many, and how long it took to resolve it) to help you add more staff if need be

  7. #7
    Cyburbian SW MI Planner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by btrage
    The state of Michigan has provisions in its FOIA for keeping personal information regarding law enforcement procedures confidential. I'm not sure this would relate to zoning enforcement and I'm not aware of any case law regarding this.
    I don't think that applies to zoning?? I think we've been through this before with our City Attorney. If anyone finds out otherwise, let me know.

    Are the problems you are having is that people are complaining about things you can't enforce, or too many complaints?

  8. #8
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by SW MI Planner
    Are the problems you are having is that people are complaining about things you can't enforce, or too many complaints?
    I think the problem is that people are making complaints concerning sections of our ordinance that are very open to interpretation...hence my comment about the some of the ordinances being unenforcable/too vague, i.e. light tresspass, what constitutes a "structure", etc.

    Our complaints have been rising over the years.....although we are a growing community so that is expected. When our department does expand, a part-time code enforcement officer is what will be added.
    "I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany"

  9. #9
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    Handling Zoning Complaints

    I hope this is not too late of a responce for you to handle but here is how our municipality has handled zoning complaints. Because of an overwhelming number of complaints in the community in the past, the City decided to only take action on a complaint if they "officially" file a complaint with the Clerk's office. (We will NOT take complaints over the phone) Once the clerk's office has recieved the complaint they will route these complaints to all department's that are required to research the complaint.

    Once these complaints reach our planning office, we take a drive out to the property and determine if the complaint is valid, or if it is another neighbor out to get his counterpart. If there is an obvious violation, or one that we feel would be able to be won in court, we write up an official letter to the person in violation via certified mail. We usually give them 30 days to clear the site of whatever they are in violation of.

    If they clean up, then the complaint is closed; however, if they do not clean up, we write them a citation and send it to to them with a court date! They then either clean up or go to Municipal court.

    I hope this helps you out. This is the first time I have used this website.







    Quote Originally posted by btrage
    I have some questions regarding the process that others have for handling zoning complaints.

    Typically, most of our complaints are taken over the phone, with a small % taken by a resident who stops into the office. I generally take notes and then fill in one of our "Zoning Complaint Forms". We make it a practice to ask for the complainer's name, number and address, telling them that it would be kept confidential.

    I am in the process of updating this form and making it much more official looking. I would like to make it a standard practice that if a resident wishes to make a complaint, that they are required to fill out the form, including their name, etc. If the form is not signed, then we would not investigate This would basically end the process of staff taking complaints via the telephone. I am also hoping that by requirnig a signature, I can stem the amount of complaints that are driven by neighborhood disputes.

    I would also like to put this form online to be filled out, but I'm not sure how this would affect the signature requirement.

    What are other municipalities' process as far as receiving zoning complaints?

  10. #10
    Member
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    Complaint Forms as templates

    I may have asked this in the past, but who has a good template for writing complaints to citizens/businesses?

    Our department seems to write them differently every other year. Of course that may also be b/c our staff changes every other year!

    Thanks.

  11. #11

    Confidential Sources

    Our City Attorney (here in a Texas City) has interpreted the State exception that protects police informants to apply to any code enforcement complaint. Even if the person filing the complaint doesn't mind if their name is released, we don't release it.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    We put it on the form, but the state law allows us to black out names if a records request is submitted. We usually do not even ask the names. The City policy is to do drive by inspections in the neighborhoods annually, so most of our violations are noticed by staff anyways. With the city being the complainant, it seems to tone down the anger of the violators. Plus, it has cut down on the amount of time staffers spend on the phone, which this time of year is critical if you want to get anything else done.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian developmentguru's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ok_planner View post
    Our City Attorney (here in a Texas City) has interpreted the State exception that protects police informants to apply to any code enforcement complaint. Even if the person filing the complaint doesn't mind if their name is released, we don't release it.
    This is also how my city has done it. I will say that we do not see a huge amount of unreasonable or unfounded complaints, for the most part.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    People have died from complaining. I don't care what the law is, I never put the person's name on paper. Anyway, the complainer could always get a council person to relay the message. As mentioned by others the inspector becomes the respondant.

  15. #15
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Just wanted to add one other thing. It annoys me to no end every time I hear someone harp on about their 'Constitutional rights' ("the Constitution says I got the right to know who my accuser is...") when they get cited for running an illegal auto repair shop out of their garage. At the expense of belaboring the obvious, the 'Constitutional right' they refer to pertains to criminal prosecution, not civil infractions .

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Seabishop's avatar
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    Another supporter of anonymity here. Put the anonymous complaints to the back of the line if you want, but don't force the little old lady to give her name when complaining about the violator next door.

  17. #17
    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    Just wanted to add one other thing. It annoys me to no end every time I hear someone harp on about their 'Constitutional rights' ("the Constitution says I got the right to know who my accuser is...") when they get cited for running an illegal auto repair shop out of their garage. At the expense of belaboring the obvious, the 'Constitutional right' they refer to pertains to criminal prosecution, not civil infractions .
    But they pay taxes!! The part that I hate about that complaint is that when you look at how much we make off of their property taxes (we don't have an income tax) it probably breaks down to maybe $10 or less. If you think that it is worth $10 to listen to you, you are very wrong Mr. Constant Complainer.

    I enjoy "anonymous" complaints from email addresses that have their full name on it.
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

  18. #18
    Cyburbian HomerJ's avatar
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    As of right now I am a fan of letting people call in and complain anonymously, but that is only because we don't get a flood of complaints. If that were the case, I would say I'm in favor of filling out a form
    Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.

  19. #19
    BANNED
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    I am new to this forum community, I am very glad to join this community and I want to share my ideas and knowledge resources with the forum members as well as keen to increase my information bank also.
    Thanks.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    We allow for complaints to be anonymous and from my understanding, Maister is correct about the FOIA. If someone wants an update, I have them call me in a week to 10 days.

    The City of Grand Rapids has an interesting online program and cell phone app that lets anyone become a code enforcement inspector. You snap a picture, the GPS registers the address, and you type in an overview of the violation or check one of the predetermined categories. The categories are simple city maintenance stuff, but I have used it for illegal signage, inoperable vehicles, and refuse violations. It too allows for it to be anonymous, but I still leave my name.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

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