Junk car storage rules in Portage may be tweaked

February 6, 2019

Too many Portage people are storing non-functioning vehicles and other junk out in the open, and are dragging out the process of cleaning it up, City Administrator Shawn Murphy told the Common Council’s Legislative and Regulatory Committee on Monday.

The panel agreed not only to recommend ordinance changes designed to add clarity and efficiency to the junk cleanup process, but also to address, in the future, the currently legal practice of parking vehicles on boulevards or in front yards.

Murphy told the panel his immediate concern is the common practice of holding off on cleaning up detritus until a citation is adjudicated, instead of doing it the moment they get a notice (usually from a community service police office) that a cleanup is needed.

“A lot of people take care of it before they get a citation,” Murphy said, “but others string it out as long as possible.”

That situation is the basis for a key ordinance change that Murphy proposes: to eliminate the provision in the ordinance that guarantees dismissal of a citation if the owner cleans up the mess before the citation is adjudicated.

The proposed change would provide for a notification letter — posted in a “prominent place” on the junked vehicle — telling how the situation can be resolved to avoid getting a citation, including a time frame in which the cleanup must take place.

If a citation is issued, said City Attorney Jesse Spankowski, then it can be adjudicated the same as any other citation — with dismissal as a option if the evidence warrants it, but not guaranteed.

Other proposed ordinance tweaks include:

Prohibition of storing “wrecked, junked or discarded motor vehicles” on public property (like a city parking lot) for longer than 24 hours, as well as prohibiting storing them openly on private property.Extending the definition of prohibited storage to include vehicles that are not registered — not just vehicles that are wholly or partially dismantled or inoperable.Clarifying that the property’s owner might not be the only party held responsible when junk is improperly stored; any “person in charge or control of any property,” including the property’s tenant or occupant, could be warned or cited for storing a junked vehicle.

Council member Mark Hahn asked whether the ordinance should specify how long a person has, from the time of the notice, to clean up the mess.

Spankowski said any open storage of a junk vehicle is a violation of the ordinance from the moment it’s noticed. Usually, however, the time allotted for cleanup varies on a case-by-case basis, depending on factors such as the size of the job, the weather, or whether a good-faith effort was made to clean up.

Council member Jeffrey Monfort said he had concerns about penalizing people who might be restoring vintage vehicles.

“If a person doesn’t have a garage, and he gets a ’55 Lincoln, and there’s no engine in it, and it’s not leaking oil, can that be on their property?” he asked.

It can, Spankowski said, but it must be kept out of sight in a sturdy building like a garage. But an inoperable vehicle can’t be stored in the open on public property, nor on city streets, he said.

Murphy added that a temporary structure like a tent would not be sufficient cover for a junk vehicle, even if its owner claims the vehicle is in the process of being restored.

Council member Allan Radant said he’s had some experience inadvertently running afoul of the junk ordinance.

“I put an old recliner outside and forgot about it,” he said. “Three days later, I got a letter said I could get a $300 fine. So I put it back in the shed.”

Murphy said he also fields complaints about people parking functioning cars in their yards or in the boulevards between the sidewalk and the street. Although those practices are not forbidden, a lot of people don’t like the look of cars parked in places other than streets, garages or driveways, he said.

Committee members suggested Murphy come back to a future meeting with language regulating the circumstances under which a person can park in a boulevard or yard — namely, in the winter when the city’s snow ordinance is in effect and when vehicles have to be taken off the streets to allow city crews to remove snow.

Update hourly