If you go

What: Boulder City Council study session

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Boulder Municipal Building, 1777 Broadway

Info: Read the complete memo on current code enforcement efforts at bit.ly/OsMKSB.

Snow, trash, noise: Sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference.

Boulder officials have pledged to take a new look at how the city goes about code enforcement as part of an effort to improve quality-of-life issues, especially in densely populated neighborhoods such as University Hill.

The Boulder City Council has set aside its entire three-hour study session Tuesday night for discussion of code enforcement issues and what difference more enforcement could make.

Most code enforcement in Boulder shifted away from public works in 2012 and to the police department, which has two code enforcement officers and a supervisor. That division will add an officer this spring as the city begins to require bear-resistant trash cans in western Boulder, starting with areas with alley pick-up.

The system remains largely complaint-based, but city officials said police officers on patrol do initiate their own cases.

"Last year, the unit generated approximately 54 percent of enforcement activity from direct officer observations," City Manager Jane Brautigam wrote in a memo to the City Council. "The unit's principal goal is to educate the public on the requirements of the code and to gain compliance. Officers have latitude to educate and warn rather than to just issue citations.

"Experience shows that an educational and polite conversation with a resident can often be more effective than simply writing a ticket, as shown by the 95 percent compliance rate that the unit achieved."

Gayla Berry, a Boulder code enforcement officer, takes pictures to document a city code violation at a house in Martin Acres on Friday. The Boulder City
Gayla Berry, a Boulder code enforcement officer, takes pictures to document a city code violation at a house in Martin Acres on Friday. The Boulder City Council is considering whether to increase code enforcement in an effort to deal with quality-of-life issues on University Hill and other dense neighborhoods. (David R. Jennings / Daily Camera)

Of more than 2,800 violations documented by code enforcement from March 1, 2013, to Feb. 28, 2014, just 112 resulted in summons being issued — 103 of them for trash,

Some residents want to see more patrols and less reliance on complaints.

'No one ones to be the bad guy'

Monique Cole, a member of the University Hill Neighborhood Association executive committee, said the complaint-based system has the potential to foster resentment and makes enforcement much more uneven.

"That puts the onus on the neighbors to complain about their neighbors, and I think if the enforcement officers would patrol more, the enforcement would be more consistent and less biased," she said. "No one wants to be the bad guy. Well, not most people."

Boulder City Councilman Andrew Shoemaker, who lives on University Hill, said he would like to see two weeks of stepped-up enforcement around the beginning of each school year. He wants the city to strike a balance between "over enforcement" that could provoke a backlash and "disciplining" new residents about expectations.

"The Hill has a lot of turnover," he said. "We certainly need a way to encourage both the folks just passing through and the landlords who have a profit interest to ensure that the quality of life on the Hill matches other parts of town."

Shoemaker pointed to the so-called "broken windows" effect, where lack of enforcement means people take less interest in maintaining the neighborhood.

"When there is trash everywhere, people don't think twice about dropping their trash," he said.

Shoemaker said he's interested to know what additional resources code enforcement needs and whether current resources could be used more effectively.

Cole said there's often too much lag time between when a complaint is filed and when an officer investigates, especially if a complaint is made at night or on a weekend.

"If you make a trash complaint on Friday and no one comes out until Monday, by then it's blown around to a lot of different yards," she said.

Cole said she welcomed the attention to the issue from City Council.

"The City Council has heard a lot that creating a new ordinance isn't the answer to every problem," she said. "Ordinances need to be enforced."

Gayla Berry, a Boulder code enforcement officer, prepares to leave a notice about noxious plants in the yard of a home in Martin Acres on Friday.
Gayla Berry, a Boulder code enforcement officer, prepares to leave a notice about noxious plants in the yard of a home in Martin Acres on Friday. (David R. Jennings / Daily Camera)

'We don't have meth houses'

Public works retained responsibility for enforcing rental licensing, and one code enforcement officer works out of that department just on that issue. Additional enforcement efforts — including of the International Property Maintenance Code — are spread throughout several units within public works.

From June 2011 through December 2013, the rental licensing officer investigated 1,070 cases. Of those, 539 were closed because no license was needed (landlords who rent to relatives are exempt), and 531 owners got licenses.

There are currently 138 rental license cases under investigation.

Sheila Horton, of the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, said she believes there are still many unlicensed rental units in Boulder. Enforcing that provision is key to ensuring safe rental housing and an even playing field for all landlords, Horton said.

She was more circumspect about enforcement around issues like trash and snow, which are often the responsibility of the tenant in leases but can fall back on property owners.

"Let's keep things in perspective," she said. "We don't have the problems that a lot of other places have. We don't have meth houses. We don't have gang houses."

Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum said he is primarily concerned with the health and safety issues that come from older houses subdivided to create numerous rental units, some with inadequate exits in case of fire.

"You have kids sleeping in furnace rooms," he said. "Sometimes you have no legal egress. It's a vulnerable population. We're not making this up. We're not imposing these regulations for the fun of it.

"We're trying to keep people safe."

Health and safety issues

The rental licensing inspections focuses on health and safety issues, including structural, mechanical, plumbing and electrical to ensure properties are safe and up to code, Boulder spokesman Michael Banuelos said. Properties must be inspected at the time of licensing and again every four years.

According to the memo to the City Council, just eight cases in the last year involved dangerous conditions in a building. The large majority of cases involved less serious building code violations.

But Appelbaum notes that unlicensed rentals aren't inspected at all.

Community Planning and Sustainability also has two enforcement officers, one working on zoning issues and another working on over-occupancy.

Boulder code limits the number of unrelated people who can live in a single unit — just three in many residential zones, four in some high-density zones.

Residents of cooperative housing and affordable housing advocates have called on the city to ease the occupancy limit, but Cole said she hopes that happens very carefully if at all.

She considers over-occupancy to be the root cause of many of the quality-of-life issues on University Hill.

Cole said rental licensing inspections should include checks for occupancy compliance, and landlords and sellers should have to disclose the occupancy limit of a unit when they advertise it.

In the memo, officials said there are hundreds of units with legal non-conforming uses that allow for more occupancy.

"In some neighborhoods, especially near the University of Colorado there are circumstances where one property must conform to the current code while the property next-door could have a legal occupancy of more than what is currently permitted," the memo said. "As a result, over-occupancy is investigated on a complaint basis and the complaints require extensive records research to rule out legal non-conforming status. Zoning Enforcement investigates all complaints of over-occupancy. The goal is to achieve compliance with the occupancy limits."

Shoemaker said he hopes the city can find effective ways to be more responsive to community concerns. He noted that it took the deaths of four bears last year to get Boulder to hire another code enforcement officer.

"That's one of the great things about Boulder," he said. "Boulder people care about wildlife. It is interesting that it took something like this to cause that support of resources when there have been complaints for years about trash in the alleys."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355, meltzere@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/meltzere.