Under proposed Whatcom County rule, code violations could block home sales

Whatcom County leaders will consider a proposal on Tuesday, March 31, that could make a property harder to sell if it is in violation of building and environmental rules.

The proposal, coming before the council at 3 p.m. Tuesday, would allow the county to inform a potential property purchaser if that property has a code violation. For example, if a house were built without a permit, that violation would be noted on the property’s title.

In that case, a home buyer likely wouldn’t get financing from a bank until the violation was resolved, county Planning Director Sam Ryan said.

“What if you get somebody ... they don’t have any money, they’re not going to get into compliance. What do you do?” Ryan said. “We can send them to collections, but collections doesn’t mean anything if they don’t have money to begin with, and that doesn’t give us resolution.”

Other common violations include filling a wetland or cutting down trees in areas that need to remain undisturbed.

Noting code violations on property records is the most significant of several changes to enforcement policy the council will learn about at Tuesday’s meeting at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave. Council will not decide on the policy changes for several months; they will first go before the county Planning Commission.

Code enforcers will continue to work with property owners to get them to comply voluntarily, Ryan said.

“Most people don’t want to do something illegal,” she said. “We try to work with them first, but if it’s really egregious you just have to get in right away.”

Before hiring a new enforcement officer in November, the county had gotten so far behind on cases that property owners started to think they could flout county code without consequence, Ryan said.

Even if the county is on top of a case, enforcement can be challenging, she said. If the alleged violator has the means, he or she will hire a lawyer; those who have no money and bad credit tend to ignore a stop-work order, Ryan said.

Ryan’s department intends to resolve some of the more high-profile violations, to send a message to the public that code enforcement is back on track, she said.

The first months of the new enforcement officer’s job have included time spent training, Ryan said, so it’s too early to say whether the hire has been effective at reducing the backlog of code violations. The planning department will continue to set three priority levels for violations and attend first to the most pressing ones, she said.

“A lot of those low priorities, we’ll take a long time before we get all caught up on,” Ryan said. “With this one position, we won’t be able to get entirely caught up.”