Messy Yards: Trash or Treasure?
(from Maine Townsman, June 2000)
by Steve Cartwright, Selectman, Town of Waldoboro

A rose is a rose is a rose, but just what constitutes a messy yard may be harder to define. Across Maine, communities wrestle with cluttered property, what some might call junk, what others might say is just stuff stored on the property.

In the tidy city of Hallowell, City Manager Mike Huston said his city council takes complaints of messy yards seriously. In fact, the council is considering condemning a downtown business property as a hazard. But the real problem, he acknowledged, is that the long-vacant building is an eyesore. Another, separate case in Hallowell involves an unsightly yard that is awash in odds and ends, stored items and whatever else the owner has collected over the years. "This guy we’re taking to court, essentially saying it’s a nuisance," said Huston, a former practicing lawyer who has managed Hallowell for three years.

"We try to stay ahead of the curve," he said, and clearly Hallowell is willing to go farther to protect its good looks than many a Maine community, where the "do as you please" philosophy runs deep. Huston said the Kennebec River community of Hallowell is akin to upscale coastal towns, where standards for neatness are high, and neighbors are concerned about appearances and property values. On the other hand, he recognizes individual rights. "One of my fears, quite frankly, is that in a community such as ours, you can over-regulate. It depends on the standards of the community. We’ve got a couple of people in town who don’t think we’re strict enough. Then you’ve got the guy who says "it’s my yard and my lawn (I'll do what I want)."

In the once-rural farming area of Hallowell, now increasingly suburban, city officials responded to residents’ complaints about a builder who left a lot of heavy equipment lying around, operable or otherwise. The city took the builder to court, and he cleaned up his junk. Huston believes that incident put others on notice that Hallowell, with its historical houses and quaint shops and restaurants, won’t stand for junk. "We have this reputation of being a nice, clean community and we’re trying to keep it that way."

As an example of Hallowell’s aesthetics, Huston pointed out that after Election Day, all political signs on private property are gone. If the candidate didn’t retrieve them, the city did with a public works truck. "The cost is four hours overtime and it makes the city look better," he said. Hallowell residents should know that if they leave junk around their property, they risk a visit from the code enforcement officer who will suggest that the offender clean up his or her act. If the offending party refuses, there is an understanding that the city may take legal action.

Long before that, however, is a town-wide spring clean-up, where residents are invited to get rid of old stoves, refrigerators, sofas and so forth. This spring, the city hauled three tons of junk to the Hatch Hill dump in Augusta.

In coastal Rockland, City Manager Tom Hall recently had to deal with a man in his seventies who stashed 100 old lawn mowers in his yard. Hall called them "carcasses." But he also showed compassion for the man, who had few resources and who didn’t think of his old machines as junk. The man was given 45 days to make order out of chaos, and he met the deadline.

Hall, a native of Presque Isle who spent five years as a manager in Pennsylvania, said he understands the Maine ethic about "stuff" in your yard. "What’s beauty to one is unsightly to another." He said a half a dozen properties in Rockland, several on major roads, are grandfathered junkyards and he can’t do much about them. In other instances, the code enforcement officer can invoke the city’s property maintenance code.

Unfortunately, those cited under the code can often point to neighbors who also violate the code and say, "What about them?"

Hall said the reality is that his CEO can’t be as proactive as Hall would like. Instead the CEO is reactive, responding to complaints. Rockland discontinued its spring clean-up program as too expensive and labor intensive. But fees at the transfer station are nominal, and shouldn’t discourage residents from taking junk to the dump, he said.

The old mill town of Lisbon also dropped its spring clean-up when it grew costly, said Lisbon Town Manager Curtis Lunt. There are no fees at the local transfer station, except for tires. Lunt is a Bangor native who knows that some people "consider junk their treasure." He grew up among people who think it’s okay to have a couple of cars to "part out" in the yard, and he keeps an old snowmobile in his own yard with a tarp thrown over it. "It’s a long tradition, collecting useful things that you intend to fix. What’s junk and what’s repairable. It’s a tough call, and that’s what we have a CEO for," Lunt said.

"We don’t have a rigorous door to door inspection program, but we do respond to complaints," Lunt said.

According to Hallowell’s Mike Huston, what you need to do is wield "a steel hand in a velvet glove." When his city takes action against messy or junk-strewn property, it’s willing to take the offender to court if necessary. "It seems to work."

SIDEBAR:

Junkyard ‘Junk’ Defined
by Richard P. Flewelling, MMA Senior Staff Attorney

Maine’s junkyard and automobile graveyard law (30-A M.R.S.A. § 3751 et seq.) uses words like "unserviceable" and "scrap" to describe the types of materials subject to municipal permitting under the law. These terms are not defined in the statute, however, and property owners sometimes argue that the accumulation of vehicles or debris in their yard or field is not "junk" because it has some potential use or value and is merely being "stored" for future use or sale. Maine’s Supreme Court has flatly rejected this argument on at least two recent occasions.

In Town of Pownal v. Emerson, 639 A.2d 619 (Me. 1994), the defendant claimed that a large mass of material, including "loose boards, iron, barrels, truck bodies, tires and wheels, buckets, cloths, tarps, pipes, tanks, a skidder, a van, two trucks, a camper body, a planer on an open trailer, wheelbarrows, and many other objects that are unidentifiable," was not junk because he intended to use the items in the future. He argued that the law’s definitions of "junkyard" and "automobile graveyard" were vague and subjective and that if vehicles, parts or other items could be put to use, they were not junk. Where the statute refers to "unserviceable" motor vehicles, however, the Court said it means "not ready for use or presently useable" as opposed to "incapable of being serviced." As for other forms of junk, the Court noted that "scrap" commonly means "in the form of fragments, pieces, odds and ends, or leftovers" and that the remaining material in the defendant’s yard met this description regardless of his intentions. He was fined $2500, ordered to clean up the property by a certain date or face an additional fine of $100 per day, and ordered to pay the Town’s legal fees.

Last month, in Town of Mount Desert v. Smith, 2000 ME 88, the Court reaffirmed its holding in Emerson and held that what the defendant claimed was "personal property" he someday intended to use, including "vehicles in various states of disrepair, metal drums, piping, lumber, scrap metal, TV antennas, styrofoam, old plumbing supplies, and old appliances," was in fact a junkyard. He was fined and ordered to cease the operation since the Town could not issue a permit because it was located "within 300 feet of Acadia National Park and within 100 feet of private water supplies."

For more information on the State junkyard law, including the statute, MDOT’s rules and regulations, sample application and permit forms, and a sample ordinance, see MMA Legal Services’ "Information Packet" on junkyards and automobile graveyards. The packet is available free of charge by mail or on MMA’s web site (www.memun.org).