Orange County screwed up.
Like most screw-ups, this one doesn't fall into the category of a grand conspiracy, but into that of an unintentional oversight, a glitch overlooked for four years, albeit one that may now come to haunt the county's code enforcement department. How much of a headache it will ultimately cause remains unclear.
The "technical error," as Orange County code enforcement manager Bob Spivey refers to it, is this: In 2000, the Orange County commission adopted the Standard Housing Code, 1997 edition, as the basis for regulations regarding building structures just as many municipalities throughout the Southeast have done. The county decided to customize parts of the housing code, so they took out some language and changed some language, per the commission's request.
But the changes apparently never filtered down to code enforcement's rank and file who, for the last four years, have been sending out notices to repair or demolish decrepit buildings, citing irrelevant parts of the Standard Housing Code.
Looking for a loophole? Orange County just gave you a big one.
From a legal perspective, the screw-up could help a property owner fight the county, and could possibly make the notices themselves illegal if they're properly challenged. Good for the property owners, not so good for the county when they try to collect lien money.
Asked how many of these errant notices were sent out, assistant county attorney George Dorsett says, "I don't know."
All of this went unnoticed until recently, when someone pointed out the flaw to code enforcers, a source inside the county told Orlando Weekly. Both the source, who didn't give a name, and enforcement manager Spivey believe the issue came to light when the county sent an Altamonte Springs lawyer named William Glenn Roy, Jr. a notice of code violation in October 2003. Even before the flaw became public knowledge, Dorsett says, Roy's scheduled hearing before the code enforcement board was postponed. (Roy did not return phone calls for this story.)
Whether Roy tipped off code enforcement or not, his case illustrates the flaw perfectly. The county sent him a letter last fall demanding that he repair or demolish a building he co-owns with VJ Olena Partners, 6819 Holly St., which is valued for tax purposes at $8,640. In the notice, the code enforcement department cited sections 126.96.36.199 and 3.309.1 of the Standard Housing Code. Unfortunately, the part of Section 3 the county cited had been repealed, and the part of Section 1 that was cited had significant language changes made to it long ago.
In other words, the notice was, at best, improper and, at worst, illegal.
When the county caught the error, the source says, they quickly and quietly fixed the language, hoping that the flaw wouldn't spark a flood of legal action.
Dorsett dismisses that: "This is open," he says. "No one is trying to keep any damn secrets."
Which raises two questions: Why didn't anyone catch the oversight in the last four years? And, more importantly, how big a legal quagmire could the county be in?
"It's a little technical problem, not a substantive error," Spivey says. Indeed, it's a technicality the language flub doesn't speak to the validity of code enforcement's claim against the property. But in the same way a faulty search warrant can invalidate an otherwise worthwhile criminal case, it's still a problem.
"I'm not going to concede that these things are no good," Dorsett says. "Not at all."
The code enforcement process is stacked in the county's favor, and may make the error a little more digestible.
After a complaint, or after a code enforcement officer notices a property that needs fixing, code enforcement officers send out a letter identifying the problem and asking the property owner to fix it. If that doesn't work, the matter goes before the county's code enforcement board, which sets a compliance date and assesses fines. If the fines, which often total $250 a day or more, aren't paid and the problem isn't fixed, the county goes to circuit court and asks a judge to impose a lien. Eventually though this happens rarely the county can foreclose.
The point, Dorsett says, is not to be vindictive, but to bring the property owner into compliance. Often, once that happens, the fines will be reduced or eliminated altogether.
At each stage, however, the property owner has another chance to appeal. For instance, any liens the code enforcement board doles out must be court-ordered, so a judge has to sign off on them after giving the property owner the chance to either dispute the lien or acquiesce.
And this could be the county's way out.
Dorsett says a judge would frown upon a property owner who either declined to fight the lien when it was originally issued, or fought it and lost, coming back in on a technicality.
"One thing I can tell you is we're fixing the mistake," Dorsett says. "If every single one of these folks wants to try again, it's good by us, if they want to spend the money (in court)."
Either way, for Roy, the language problem earned him at least a delay. In his case, and any similar pending case, code enforcement must now dismiss its case and refile later.