A diamond in the rough; City council urged to improve image of Vermillion through code enforcement

A diamond in the rough; City council urged to improve image of Vermillion through code enforcement by David Lias A receptive Vermillion City Council heard pleas from several citizens to more strictly enforce zoning and nuisance ordinances to help beautify the community.

After hearing public testimony, it directed City Attorney Martin Weeks to do research and file a report with the council by late July. The council also agreed to direct City Manager Jeff Pederson to put together a written community policing policy during weekends in the downtown area.

"Working with the many people that we have on our projects to beautify Vermillion, we find that there is a great concern that our city government needs to help us to make Vermillion a more beautiful place by enforcing quality of life regulations," said Judy Clark, representing Vermillion Beautiful, Inc. "Without this support, our efforts are simply a band-aid on a broken leg."

Clark said community members have encountered several problems as they try to implement ways to spruce up the city.

Vermillion Beautiful, Inc. is wrapping up an ambitious flower planting project in the downtown area and along Cherry Street, she said.

"Part of our plan was to have large flower pots in front of those businesses that have no planting beds," Clark said. "The response on Main Street was very negative and understandably so, due to the merchants' previous experiences when flower pots and beds have been used as ashtrays and toilets.

"Now isn't that a pitiful comment � that a small group can hold the rest of us hostage and prevent us from having the innocent pleasure of beautiful flowers?" Clark asked. "And isn't it sad that when we want our town to look inviting to new visitors who are coming in across the bridge we have to cave in to intimidation."

Clark said there are other situations in which a small group of people is causing grief to the majority�of the Vermillion community.

"It is only too plain that a number of property owners are not good neighbors," she said. "Many of these owners are people who live in other parts of South Dakota or out of state, but many of them live right here. If they're not concerned about being caring neighbors, then it's up to us as citizens and you as representatives to enforce the quality of life regulations that protect our community and our investments in it."

Clark offered two suggestions to help with these problems:

* The city council should ask the city attorney to review the present building and nuisance regulations and present a report, in writing, as to code effectiveness in preserving the quality of life the community desires, compliance with contemporary standards such as International Building Code and standards outlined in the recent South Dakota Municipal League zoning and code enforcement book, clarity and ease of interpretation, and uniformity of the process of enforcement, and realistic and just penalties. Clark suggested that this report be presented to the council within one month.

* The city council should ask the city manager to request the police chief to appear with a written community policing plan for two foot patrol officers on the commercial area of Main Street every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 11 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Any staffing changes and any budget adjustments necessary to implement this program shall be included. Clark suggested this report should be presented to the council by the next regular council meeting.

"I know that the review is something that does take time, but on the other hand, if we can get started on this, we perhaps can get some help from the students at the law school and from the South Dakota Municipal League," Clark said.

"I concur that we need to do something," Alderman Barbara Yelverton. "I think until someone complains, we sometimes don't notice all of the problems and don't enforce our codes."

She added that the city's problems may be a sign that Farrel Christensen and the city's code enforcement department may be short of staff and resources.

"I think what this group is asking for is definitely not out of line at all," said Alderman Jere Chapman. "I concur with all of these, including what Barb has just said. Maybe we need to look at more staff for code enforcement. I'd like to see all of this take place."

Alderman Jack Powell suggested that the city not limit itself to just the downtown area. "I think we have some problems down on Cherry Street, too. I don't think we should restrict it to just Main Street."

"Basically, I agree with you," Clark said. "The reason for Main Street, of course, is that there is a concentration of foot traffic there."

"I think it would very difficult to get this done correctly and completely within a one month period of time," City Attorney Martin Weeks said. "It sounds like a lot of time that I would have to put in and I have several projects already that I need to take care of, but I would be glad to do it."

Weeks said that if he could find people to help him with research, he could get the initial work done within two months, and possibly as soon as one month. He added that writing the report would also take time.

Tom Muenster also addressed the council regarding code enforcement.

"I'm concerned about code enforcement in Vermillion because this is my hometown," he said. "I had a lot of choices of places I wanted to live, and I chose South Dakota, and when I told my friends across the state that I was moving to Vermillion, I got the same reaction across the board.

"They said, 'Why are would you want to live in Vermillion? That college town is a dump.' And that was embarrassing to me," he added, "because this is my hometown, and I don't want anybody to run it down."

Vermillion, Muenster said, is a great community, but unfortunately a few distressed properties tarnish the town's reputation.

"The city has a great code enforcement officer, but unfortunately sometimes when those codes are enforced, the abatement doesn't happen," Muenster said. "I think there are examples when people have come to the city council and complained and when somebody was angry, the codes were enforced. I don't think that path of least resistance is the right course for Vermillion to take."

By not enforcing codes, bad things happen in the community, Muenster said. Property values are lowered, business opportunities are lost, accidents can happen, and the community's future is threatened when city ordinances aren't upheld.

"If it takes angry residents to come down here and pound on this podium, I'll be here for every meeting, because it's that important for this city," Muenster said. "I know there are an awful lot of other citizens here who feel as I do. Vermillion is a diamond in the rough, and it's time we start polishing her."

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