City cleans up backyard mess |

City cleans up backyard mess

Depending who tells the story, what happened to Don Downey is either perfectly understandable and legal, or horribly cruel.

For Downey, he said it was so rough he had to leave his house for the day just to regain his perspective and remain in control of his feelings. For the city of South Lake Tahoe, it was just the final step in a routine nuisance abatement process.

“We tried to work with him as best we could, but ultimately we had to balance his concerns with basic health and safety issues, as well as his neighbors’ rights,” said Gary Marchio, the city’s principal planner. “It’s a tough call, and it’s not something we take lightly.”

Since a neighbor complained and the city first warned him to clean up his property in November 1998, and after countless notices and a public hearing, Downey was finally forced Monday to part with the belongings he’d stacked over the years in his back yard. Early Monday morning, city dump trucks pulled into his driveway to cart away loads of lumber, metal scraps and partially built projects. According to Downey, who has lived at the Pioneer Trail residence since 1965, the trucks carted away his livelihood.

“I had to take a hike when they pulled up because someone was going to get killed, and it wouldn’t be me,” Downey said. “I kept telling them, ‘I’m disabled, what you’re taking from me is the only thing I can do to make ends meet.’ They took the lumber I’ve been collecting since 1979.”

Downey said he used the building materials, which covered the two backyard lots he owns, to build patio furniture, chairs, planter boxes, windmills and birdhouses. Nearly 1,000 items were either completed, or ready to be assembled he said, packed in boxes in his back yard. But according to Marchio, neighbors complained about having to look at Downey’s yard from their decks.

“Nuisance abatement works on a complaint basis. After we get a complaint, we determine if it’s visible from someone’s back yard, then we send out notices and have a public hearing,” Marchio said. “Mr. Downey had collected twenty years-worth of empty plastic containers, tires and all kinds of construction materials. The key in the code is if it’s visible from someone else’s property, then there’s a problem.”

The cost to the city for carting away Downey’s backyard possessions is calculated on an hourly basis and billed as a lien on the property, Marchio said. When the property is sold, the city gets its money back. If the property is never sold, he explained, no money changes hands.

For Downey, Monday’s events were the culmination of what he called “verbal under-the-table deals” with city officials that no one remembered, nor honored.

“I know this has been the law for a long time, but back in the 70’s the city told me that if I just kept my mouth shut, they would let me do my thing, even though I didn’t have a business license,” he said. “But in the end, I got screwed by the city and legally I can’t do a thing.”

Marchio said that in almost 99 percent of all nuisance abatement situations, property owners clean up before the city is forced to cart away their property.

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