The Common Law: City Code Compliance and Backyard Inspections – Chronicles

I own an investment property that is not currently leased. My neighbor complained about the tall weeds in the yard and he’s threatening to report me to the city of Austin. You can’t see the backyard from the street because of my fence. Can I really get a tall grass code violation? And if an inspector comes to my house, can he enter my garden or look over the fence without my permission?

Yes and no. The Austin City Code Compliance Department is the entity responsible for investigating violations of certain city ordinances. The violations are spelled out in Austin’s city and land development codes, falling into a variety of broad categories. And yes, even the height of grass and weeds in your yard is regulated under Code Title 10-5-21(B)(1), “Duty to Maintain Sanitary Condition of Property”, which states that weeds and grasses should not be more than 12 inches in height.

A complaint from a neighbor alleging a violation is all it takes for a city code inspector to come out and inspect your property. Once a complaint is received, a case is opened and assigned to an officer in your code district, who will conduct their own investigation to determine whether or not there is a violation on the property.

The code officer cannot enter the back yard of the property or look over your fence without a search warrant or your permission as the owner or occupier. If no one is present at the time of the inspection, the code officer should make reasonable efforts to contact and seek your permission if entry is required. The code officer might attempt to use other legal vantage points to view the backyard (like the upstairs window of your neighbor’s house for example).

If, for example, a violation for unsanitary conditions is identified on your property during an inspection, the Code Compliance Department will issue you a Notice of Violation and ask you to correct the violation. If you disagree with the inspector’s assessment, you can appeal the notice within seven days of it being given by filing a written statement with the ministry. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the City’s desired outcome in issuing a notice is to achieve voluntary compliance. If a landlord fails or refuses to remedy the condition, a citation will be issued and the department has the authority to resolve the issue, send you the invoice and even place a lien on your property for the amount owed. In short, remember to mow your lawn.

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Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.mehlaw.com.

The content of this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute or replace legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You can contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a public nonprofit service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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