Virginia Beach is seeking to jail Bruce Smith for storing junk in his yard, according to WAVY.com. Smith said he’s paid the city $5,200 in fines for repeated violations over the past year due to cars, boats and other items on his property.
City officials are charging Smith under Section 23-48 of the city code, which makes it a class one misdemeanor to store things like non-working machinery, appliances, and dilapidated furniture outside.
“The City of Virginia Beach has over 180,000 privately owned residential units. The city enacted property maintenance codes to ensure that all of these housing units and other properties are safe, well-maintained and free from conditions that could harbor nuisances or pose hazards to the public,” Wells Freed, Virginia Beach Housing Code Administrator, told The Virginia Star in an email.
Smith told The Virginia Star that problems with the city began over five years ago. “When I was in the middle of remodeling my house, [a city official] tried to have my house condemned as unfit and caused me to have to give my children to my parents.”
He worked on the house for two months. Child Protective Services inspected the house and allowed his children to return home. Smith said the city left him alone until last October after a new inspector was appointed. Smith said, “He would say, ‘You can’t have this here so move it’, so then I take it and move it, [he would respond ‘You’re having bulk storage which is a zoning violation.'”
Smith said his personal life has made it hard for him to handle the city’s requests. Starting in last August, Smith went through a series of personal crises, including a separation from his wife, multiple hospital visits, and the stress from COVID-19. He believes disgruntled neighbors are complaining to the city.
Smith’s property is on the corner of two streets, giving it high visibility. Footage from Wavy.com shows cars, boats, bicycles, and appliances in the yard. Since reporters were at his house last week, he’s removed the boats. Smith admits to having a lot of cars on the property.
“Our cars are our religion, our cars are our church.” Smith used to be an auto mechanic, loves Chrysler products, and has a ’72 Plymouth and a ’72 Barracuda. “I love cars…I’m a boy, you know what I’m saying, I’m a man.” “I have a hobby of going to the racetrack and racing and building cars,” he said.
Smith thinks he can get his property into compliance soon. “I [have to] sink fence posts and put up a privacy fence between me and my neighbor… straighten up, cut the grass, clean the yard, finish painting the house,” he said.
In an exclusive interview, Heritage Foundation Legal Fellow Zack Smith told The Virginia Star, “I can’t get into too many details about this specific case, but what I can say is anytime you see someone threatened with jail time over code enforcement violations, that’s a very unusual situation.”
“Generally, folks should be given broad leeway to use their property as they see fit.” However, Smith said governments do have the power to protect their citizens’ health, safety, and welfare. “So if someone is using their property in a way that is dangerous or creating a health hazard, then certainly the state can take appropriate remedial action in those situations,” Smith said.
“What I think we all as citizens really want to be sure and pay close attention to is that any appropriate due process and procedural protections that are put in place are being followed and that whoever owns the property is being given all the due process rights that he is entitled to,” Smith added.
Code Administrator Freed said, “These ordinances are enforced uniformly throughout the City of Virginia Beach and inspectors attempt to work with residents to gain voluntary compliance whenever possible. Court action is the last resort to compel compliance when a property owner fails to comply voluntarily. It is only necessary for a small percentage of cases that we deal with.”
Freed added, “The accumulation of junk and debris on a property is conducive to nuisances and rodent infestations which are public health and safety concerns. We are guided by the legal experts here in the Virginia Beach City Attorney’s Office and we feel that the response to this case is appropriate given the long history and the city’s obligation to address code violations throughout our communities.”
Smith said there is no health and safety violation on his property. He has a lawyer scheduled to appear in court with him on September 29. He hopes to have his property in compliance by then, and hopes that will be the end of the conflict.
“I’m not a bad person, I’m not a bad citizen,” Smith emphasized. ” I know I’m not a perfect neighbor.”
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