'Crawl spaces to cockroaches'

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By Scotty McDaniel

The easiest description of what Building Official/Chief Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Tennill and his employees do is also the most vague.

"We get complaints about everything," Tennill said. "The public might see something that could be wrong, but they don't know who to send it to, so they just send it to us. We get some stuff that's really off the wall, and we get some stuff that's really obvious."

Tennill and his crew investigate complaints called in to code enforcement, the mayor's office, or suggested by other departments. But complaints are only part of the job. Inspecting new buildings and issuing permits are other common tasks.

However, the most diverse part of a code enforcement official's day comes from complaints.

The range of complaints takes Tennill from more minor nuisance complaints, such as the bushes outside the Shelby County Community Theatre needing trimmed down because they can impede sightline of Main St., to more serious issues, such as an overcrowded sublet rental property that's missing windows, has unconcealed electrical wires, dangerous electric heaters and ceiling damage crumbling and leaking into the house.

The difficulty of resolving complaints varies with the severity of the issues and the people involved.

For the complaint on the bushes, Tennill was contacted, made a few calls and met with the executive director of the theater to discuss the issue. It didn't take long for the theatre to decide it's going to take the large bushes out and replace them with smaller ones. Case closed.

An issue of safety

But not all complaints are resolved that easily.

Tennill said certain other complaints, like a dangerous rental property, can stretch for long periods of time without being resolved, often because property owners don't care to comply with code enforcement citations.

Tennill can walk through a rental property and start listing and explaining visible hazards; ceiling damage is often a health issue, because damage leads to leaks, which can lead to mold. Electric heaters and unconcealed electrical wiring are common causes of house fires. Some buildings don't have functioning smoke detectors, or are missing them completely.

Outside the house, excessive trash is another problem that he said can lead to health issues, fires and dramatically decreased property value.

The home on 43 Ohio St. is so bogged down with trash that its floors and ceilings are collapsing, and outside the home the lawn has been replaced by garbage.

"It's a fire hazard," he said. "The fire department can't get within 20 feet of it, because of all the junk, to put it out. And it's not safe for them to go in and try to put it out."

There are also code issues involving tenants in certain rented properties. Tennill said overcrowded houses make it difficult for occupants to quickly escape in a time of emergency, like a fire.

"The code specifically spells out that the only route from your sleeping area to the outside of the unit can't go through another sleeping area," he said. "So when you have people sleeping in the living room that have to walk through another room full of people sleeping to get out, you've got a dangerous issue."

Code enforcement identifies rooms that could be bedrooms during their inspections. A problem arises when sublet rental properties don't comply with the code and unsuitable rooms are used as bedrooms anyway, which makes a fire extra dangerous, because not only will people struggle to escape, but also the fire department doesn't expect people to be sleeping all over the building, and they concentrate first on the normal places where people sleep, Tennill said.

Overcrowded areas are also socially dangerous, he said, because people need their own space, and violence often ensues in areas where this isn't possible.

All of these overcrowding issues are resolved by code enforcement talking with the property owners and asking them to get rid of some of the people living in the house, to maintain safety. Tennill said a varying amount of time is given for citations, and if that timeline is not met, fines follow. If the property owner does not comply after a long period of heavy fines and court orders, the property could eventually be foreclosed, though that is not common.

Five complaints a day

A lot of rental property in Shelbyville is not kept in the best shape, keeping Tennill and his crew busy trying to improve the conditions.

"It's difficult when you're dealing with property owners who appear to have no regard for the people they rent to, or for their property for that matter," he said. "When they won't take care of their property, yes it's hurting the renter, but it's hurting them too, because it's lowering their property value."

Not all property owners drag their feet on necessary home repair and maintenance. Shuck Properties is a property owner Tennill said is good about repairing and maintaining its properties with care.

"They've got their handy men, and they take repair seriously," he said.

Still, code enforcement is never-ending. When not dealing with complaints, there are new construction inspections that need conducted. When the day's inspections are complete, there are ongoing issues that need to be followed up on.

Tennill said code enforcement inspects new properties at every level of the construction process, from foundation to finish, checking for quality, spacing, safety and ensuring the standards of the Energy Conservation Code are met.

Code enforcement also enforces state guidelines on silt and erosion issues. For example, contractors are required to have a silt fence and a pull-off for trucks to reduce the spread of silt.

This time of year, Tennill said code enforcement averages around 5 or complaints a day and 5 or 6 new building inspections. In the summer, 25 to 30 complaints and 15 to 20 inspections are common -- a busy task list spanning all extremes.

"We'll go from cockroaches to crawl spaces, to sitting with the mayor in a single day," he said.