Cleanup program targets junk cars and other problems

Rodika Tollefson, KP News Any motorist heading south on the Key Peninsula Highway likely noticed a blue pickup at the intersection of 134th Avenue near the Shell gas station. The beat-up vehicle, full of other junk, apparently was being moved from one spot to another within a 10-yard radius until finally rested on the side off 134th for several months. The sight is not unusual around the Peninsula, though most times these dumped loads are in remote neighborhoods or roads away from main traffic. A couple of years ago citizens looking to report such nuisance may have become stuck in a loop trying to get to the right agency, but a relatively new program called Pierce County Responds now offers a centralized hotline for complaints — and engages an entire anti-blight task force comprised of several agencies. Pierce County Responds, overseen by the county’s solid waste division, has two main elements in addition to the hotline: a cleanup program that targets large-scale, longtime dump sites, and a nuisance vehicle program backed by a county Nuisance Vehicle Law passed in June 2003. The Home Park, formerly a dumpsite, was cleaned with the help of the program. Thousands of pounds of debris were hauled away by the county from the site, which was subsequently beautified and turned into a park by local volunteers with the help of several business owners. Steve Wamback, county solid waste administrator who coordinates Pierce County Responds, said nearly 4,000 calls were received to the hotline during the first half of this year, and about 1,800 vehicles were removed during the same time, a big portion of those coming from private properties. Private property owners who cooperate are given priority. An owner who cooperates to have a nuisance vehicle removed, whether after a complaint or by voluntarily calling it in, agrees to pay half of the removal costs (the 50 percent of the bill is usually $35 per car). The fee may be waived for low-income or senior citizens. The program, however, is not proactive and relies on residents to identify problem areas, much like the codeenforcement office does for zoning violations. The response time for someone who calls the hotline is usually about six months, Wamback said, because the program started taking calls about a year before it was staffed to actually do removal — so formal enforcement only started last December. The program is funded by a portion of garbage-disposal fees. “When County Executive (John)Ladenburg created Pierce County Responds in 2001, he directed county agencies and the health department to work together on two main problems: junked vehicles on private properties and illegal dumping of solid waste,” Wamback said. “(He) was motivated by our research into the ‘broken window’ syndrome. Once a broken-down car has its window broken, soon the tires are gone, doors pulled off, and trash accumulates. The same has been shown to occur with boarded up homes or entire neighborhoods…The county executive created Pierce County Responds to fix the ‘broken windows’ and start to free our neighborhoods from the scourge of meth labs, car theft rings, and chop shops.” The eyesore pickup that decorated Key Pen Highway finally disappeared one day around late July or August. The Key Peninsula News could not track its whereabouts or whether it was hauled away by the cleanup program—but whatever it took to get rid of it, it worked. Officials do warn that residents who find a dumped vehicle on private or public property should not touch its contents. If the vehicle was used for a methamphetamine lab, it is highly toxic. Illegal wrecking Another big problem is illegal wrecking yards. Several agencies collaborate in spotting illegal activity, and law enforcement officers say often times a site has the entire gamut: wrecked cars, a chop shop, and drugs. Although investigating wrecking yards falls under Washington State Patrol, code enforcement officers’ inspections result in a call to detectives as needed (for more about this collaborative effort, read the Key Peninsula News July edition). Long before Pierce County Responds was in place and the task force was organized, one Glen Cove area property had more than 50 junk cars removed. The case, which started more than 15 years ago, is still in the courts, according to county officials. “We generally get called out if there is a land-use, shoreline, or illegal business issue,” said Mark Lupino, a county code enforcement agent whose geographical area includes the Key Peninsula. “We send out a letter with a seven-day response time then make a site visit. If we see wreckage or cars that appear stolen (and other problems), we call the state patrol.” WSP Trooper Willie Hernandez, who investigates illegal wrecking yards, said a person dismantling cars or selling parts is considered to have a wrecking business and must be licensed. But storing junk vehicles, while a code violation, doesn’t automatically mean criminal activity. “If there is a volume of vehicles in different stages of dismantlement and parts scattered about the property,” then law enforcement gets involved, he said, adding that such calls are frequent in the Gig Harbor/Key Peninsula area. Whatever the potential problem may be, Wamback said Pierce County Responds was created to listen to the citizens, and as a tool to help improve quality of life. “Pierce County government has listened to the people…that illegal dumping and nuisance vehicles are a problem that degrades their neighborhoods,” he said. “We have listened and are trying to address them, but we can’t do it alone.”
PC Responds Hotline If you have a complaint about a dumped or nuisance car, suspicious activity, or excessive garbage on a private property, call 798-INFO. County officials urge residents to leave as many details as possible as well as a phone number for follow-up questions. Property owners who would like to voluntarily cooperate in getting junk cars or garbage removed from their property should also call this line.The cooperative abatement program will pay 50 percent of the cost of a vehicle removal in exchange for property owner cooperation; fees may be waived for seniors and low-income residents. A litter credit program is also in place, in which households can receive up to $100 in garbage disposal aid after a code enforcement officer inspection.