It might be a tourist who could be motivated to stop and spend money. It might be members of a family looking for a new place to live. It might be an entrepreneur seeking a place to start a business that would provide badly needed employment. Or it could be a longtime resident who feels pride in his community and wants his neighbors to feel it as well.
“It’s about the overall livability of the city,” Stuart said. “If everyone’s place is pristine, who wouldn’t want to come here?”
For all of them, Stuart patrols the streets looking for tall grass, abandoned cars and piles of junk. He explains city code to property owners and asks them to remove the nuisances. Sometimes he returns to explain code requirements again.
Most people comply when they understand that an out-of-control yard is unsightly and broken furniture or sacks of garbage can attract pests or become safety and fire hazards, Stuart said. So he rarely has to write a ticket.
But he often has to do a great deal of research to find out who is responsible for a property, particularly houses whose owners have given up on their mortgages and moved on, abandoning many of their possessions.
“The city is just asking people to meet the minimum standards to be part of the community,” said Stuart, who is one of fewer than 50 Oregonians with Code Enforcement Professional certification from the Oregon Code Enforcement Association.
“As long as they comply, everyone is happy,” he said. “Everybody wants a nice place to live.”
Stuart spent 27 years as an officer with the McMinnville Police Department. He was a reserve prior to joining the force full time.
He retired in 2007, after injuring his shoulder. When he recovered, he got a visit from Ken Summers, then a lieutenant with the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office.
The YCSO operates a substation in Sheridan that also serves Willamina. It needed someone to fill a city’s code enforcement position in Willamina, and Summers figured Stuart, a certified police officer and co-leader of the YCSO’s search and rescue program, would be perfect for the job.
Stuart went for an interview in early 2008.
When then-City Manager Sam Sasaki stood up to greet Stuart, he was wearing a Harley-Davison T-shirt.
“I can work with this guy,” Stuart thought. “Now, Sam and I ride motorcycles together,” he said.
Stuart said he’s also had a great relationship with the current city administrator, Sue Hollis. He called her “a blessing.”
And he appreciates the rest of the city hall staff, along with Jeff Brown, who’s in charge of street maintenance.
In fact, he said, he really enjoys the whole community of Willamina. The residents are good people, he said, and he enjoys greeting many of them by name as he drives the streets.
In some cities, code enforcement is complaint-driven. In Willamina, Stuart actively looks for problem properties.
Back in 2008, he started with the downtown area, since that’s the part of town noticed by everyone who drives through on Highway 18B. Now, he covers the whole town during his two weekly workdays.
Because he often has to research property owners, he spends more time than he’d like in the office, located on the top floor of city hall.
While there, he updates the case file he keeps on each incident. He includes photos and dates when he’s visited a property, so an owner can’t claim he didn’t know a problem needed fixing.
On patrol, Stuart looks for tall weeds or junk piled at the end of a driveway or another nuisance. When he sees a problem, he pulls over and talks with the property owner, if that person is present. Or he opens a case and the city sends a letter, explaining its laws and giving the owner a deadline for compliance.
“Education is the first step,” he said.
Often, it’s the only step he needs to take. The owner will mow, or make a trip to the dump, and the problem will be solved.
If that doesn’t work, Stuart returns and gives the owner a warning. More warnings may follow, and eventually, if that’s what it takes, a ticket.
Sometimes owners just can’t clean things up themselves. Stuart assists them in finding someone for hire, or a neighbor who’ll volunteer, or a non-profit group like a Boy Scout troop that’s willing to pitch in.
“We try to help people,” he said. “That’s what’s cool about being here in Willamina.”
Stuart appreciates that Willamina has an ordinance requiring owners of vacant properties to register with the city. That way, he and other city officials can make sure the site is being maintained, or if it isn’t, know who to contact.
Occasionally, property owners just walk away, thinking they’ll leave the bills and upkeep to the bank. However, “They’re still responsible,” Stuart said, as long as the deed remains in their name.
In addition to keeping an eye out for code violations, Stuart — still a certified police officer — watches for signs of criminal activity. When necessary, he notifies the sheriff’s deputies working out of the substation.
And if they need back-up, he’s available.
“That’s one thing that’s nice about me being down here,” he said. “I’m used to patrolling to protect citizens.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.