ST. GEORGE — Why would a home take more than two years to sell in St. George’s booming seller’s market? A homeowner and several of his Bloomington-area neighbors said they suspect that it could be in part because of unsightly neighboring yards whose residents have occasionally been found in violation of city code.
When Jim Beller put his home on the market in February 2015, he said he never expected it would not have sold more than two years later.
“In over two years, we did not have one single offer,” Beller said.
Beller and his wife moved to St. George over a decade ago after retiring from a successful 15,000 head-per-year cattle farming business in Nebraska that he grew from just two head of cattle about 60 years ago. They decided to move back to their hometown to be closer to family.
Beller listed his house through three different realtors and tried to sell it on his own. He also lowered his initial asking price substantially.
As prospective buyers came to see the home, he said they typically left with same response.
“We have a nice home. We get a lot of compliments. People come and say, ‘I love your home but not the neighbors.’”
Among the issues Beller and others said they observed in surrounding properties include:
- Unlicensed and inoperable vehicles parked on streets.
- Work vehicles parked on residential property.
- Unkempt landscaping and messy yards with kids toys left out over night.
- Storage containers kept outside.
- Recreational vehicles, boats and all-terrain vehicles parked in driveways.
- Unfinished landscaping.
- Garbage, shrubbery clippings and construction waste in vacant lots.
“I think as a plain courtesy to the neighbors, they ought to think about what that does to the appearance of the neighborhood and home values,” Paul Linford, a neighbor of Beller’s with similar concerns, said.
Neighbors take action
After about a year of no offers on his home, Beller, Linford and several other neighbors got together to attempt to tackle the issue.
“I’m just bound determined to get these people to straighten up,” Beller said.
A letter signed by “the neighbors” was sent out to certain homeowners in an attempt to relay their concerns.
The letter didn’t appear to effect any change, Beller said.
At that point, a petition that received approximately 20 signatures from area homeowners was drafted and sent to the city in an attempt to work through official channels.
Part of the petition states:
We suggest that a committee of residents be formed to meet with both the city and the Bloomington Council to discuss the problem and what can be done to better enforce current codes and adopting additional ones to bring Bloomington into more conformity with the rest of the town.
The petition did not fall on deaf ears, and in December 2016, a neighborhood meeting was held in Beller’s home with city officials.
Beller said the neighbors who gathered were told there was nothing the city could do for them beyond responding to code violations.
One suggestion, however, was offered: The neighbors could sue the Bloomington Community Council into taking action against those in violation of area covenants, conditions and restrictions, or CC&Rs.
Taking legal action against the board seemed a backward solution to the neighbors, Beller said, adding that in the case of the Bloomington council, it has no legal authority over residents in violation of city ordinance.
“As a Council Board, we have no power to enforce city ordinances. All we can do is refer contact information for code enforcement,” board president Chris Cannon wrote in a Bloomington Community Council Newsletter.
The city responds to all complaints of possible code violations.
“Anyone can choose to simply call one of our code enforcement officers,” City Attorney Shawn Guzman said in an interview with St. George News. “Tell them what you think the nature of the violation is and they can take a look at it and see if we can determine that there’s a violation.”
Linford and Beller submitted an extensive list outlining infractions of several properties in the neighborhood to the city.
In a letter addressed to Beller, St. George city code enforcement officer Jeff Cottam noted that while he was able to corroborate most of the submitted complaints, not all of them were actually in violation of city ordinance, such as residents storing dumpsters on their property, parking one commercial vehicle in their drive way, storing watercraft or trailers in their backyard or homes with unfinished landscaping features.
“Beller wants people to clean up their houses and clean up their yards, but you can’t make them do that,” Linford said. “You can’t get someone to paint his house just because his paint’s coming off. The only thing you can do is make him live up to city code, and there’s no code on what color or how much paint you’ve got to have on your house.”
Beller again turned to the city for help and was in frequent contact with city officials, including queries to Mayor Jon Pike.
“There are people who would say, ‘Hey, I want you to protect my property values by making sure that my neighbor doesn’t do this or doesn’t do that or does do this with their property.’ And then you have other people who say, ‘Hey, give me as much flexibility and freedom as possible, and leave me alone. Leave my property alone. Let me do my thing as long as isn’t hurting someone else,’” Pike said previously in an interview with St. George News.
“I think the responsibility that the City Council and I have is to try to find the right balance and direct our code enforcement staff accordingly,” the mayor said.
The city also recently hired a consultant with expertise in land use ordinances to revamp the city’s zoning ordinance, relating in part to city code regarding property upkeep.
St. George News reached out to some of the neighbors who received notices of code violations.
“The city sent us a letter, and my code violation was my car on the side of my house was parked too far forward,” Andrew Nelson, a property owner in the area, said.
Nelson said he was incredulous about the violation and called the city to check whether the courtesy notice he received was legitimate.
After confirming that the notice was genuine, he asked what he needed to do to be in compliance and was told he would need to keep the vehicle parked 25 feet away from the street.
“The actual code was that it wasn’t parked on a paved easement,” Nelson said.
Many properties in the area, including Nelson’s, have gravel driveways and no paved connections to the street.
“So, I took my shovel and I cut a line in the dirt at 25 feet and I just made sure I was parked behind that.”
Another neighbor who requested to remain anonymous said he has received numerous courtesy notices from the city for what he described as small issues, like having an inoperable vehicle or a trailer parked in his driveway for a just a few days.
He said he feels somewhat harassed, explaining that code enforcement officers come to his house and look around his property.
Nelson mentioned another neighbor who received a notice that the grass around a fire hydrant in his yard was too tall while his family was dealing with a hardship.
“So us neighbors, we joined together – he was taking care of his dying wife – we joined together and cleaned up his yard,” Nelson said.
A common theme shared among the neighbors who received notices was that they were not aware that they were breaking any law, and they said they always complied.
A government records request made to the city by St. George News revealed that of all the properties on Beller’s street that received courtesy notices in the last two years, only one property owner was ever fined, indicating high compliance with enforcement action.
Both Nelson and the anonymous neighbor said they don’t think it’s their responsibility to help sell another neighbor’s property and suggested that Beller’s home was priced too high.
Protecting property value
“Prices have just been skyrocketing in the last two years. It’s a great seller’s market, a great time to sell your home,” Kade Ence, a broker with Keller Williams Realty, said.
Ence said buyers are likely to overlook the condition of neighboring property if a home is priced at market value.
“People say we’re too high; well, we’re about $40,000 below what the realtors suggested,” Beller said.
His first broker had 10 other realtors fill out a questionnaire indicating how much they would sell the home for, and they generally agreed with his asking price within a margin of plus-or-minus approximately $25,000 dollars, and he later lowered that price.
“I’m not saying his neighbors cleaning up their yards wouldn’t help him sell,” Ence said, “but when you move into a neighborhood, you kind of get what you sign up for. I don’t think we can rely on the city code enforcement to try to regulate that our neighbors’ yards look nice to a very specific standard – more of a general standard.”
Ence suggested that someone looking to buy a home where neighboring property is held to a high standard of upkeep should consider buying into a homeowners association, which have real enforcement power through fines to hold property owners to specific, across-the-board standards.
Bloomington was originally built before the advent of HOAs in an unincorporated area approximately 50 years ago, and there were no codes or restrictions imposed on the developer. It is also divided up into numerous sections with varying CC&Rs.
“From a real estate perspective,” Ence said, “it’s more of a question of ‘Are HOAs good or bad?’”
Ence said occasionally homebuyers will initially be turned off by the idea of being part of an HOA with various rules, restrictions and monthly fees.
“But then when it comes time to sell their home, they’re sure happy that everyone else in the neighborhood has to abide by all those same rules and restrictions and pay the same fees every month, that they all have nice looking yards – that everyone has homes by the architectural control committee standards and everything’s looking nice and tidy.
“So, it’s a give-and-take relationship,” Ence said. “The ones that go into a non-HOA community, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get.”
Ence noted that some homebuyers avoid buying into HOAs specifically to avoid additional regulations, as was the case with at least one of Beller’s neighbors.
“We specifically looked for a place to buy where there weren’t HOAs,” Nelson said. “We didn’t want to have to comply to certain things.”
Regulation as a last resort
Another realtor, Shauna Jo Larkin of ERA Brokers Consolidated, said her first recommendation to people with predicaments like Beller’s is to approach the neighbor.
“I certainly run into situations where the condition of a neighbor’s home or the neighborhood in general has an affect on our ability to resell a property,” Larkin said. “My suggestion to the seller was to have a conversation with the neighbor.”
If those conversations didn’t produce results, she said her next suggestion was to ask the property owner for permission to bring a crew by to pull weeds or perform other cleanup duties.
“If that kind of thing wasn’t received favorably,” she said, “then I would suggest the homeowner that they need to report a code violation because it is affecting not just the ability to resell but the amount they can resell the home for.”
Of the homeowners in the Bloomington neighborhood subject to code enforcement action with whom St. George News spoke, none said they were ever spoken to directly by any other neighbor about the condition of their property.
Linford, however, said he did have conversations with some of his neighbors, even offering to buy a weed wacker for a nearby homeowner, to which he said they replied, “Why don’t you mind your own business?”
The city does not require a resident to speak with their neighbor first, and those who would rather go straight to the code enforcement office may do so.
“The best thing is always, if you can, have a discussion with a property owner,” Guzman said, “but if not or you feel uncomfortable or you don’t wish to, you can call a code enforcement officer and give them the details, and the officer can see if they can determine whether there’s a violation.”
Keeping St. George attractive
For all of his efforts, Beller said he has observed some of his neighbors cleaning up their property in recent weeks.
He also finally managed to sell his home on a handshake for more than he originally paid for it without the assistance of a realtor and moved back to Nebraska early last week.
But he said the issue is still one that needs to be addressed for the rest of his neighbors and all of St. George.
“I’m a firm believer in respecting your neighbors and treating the next guy like you’d like to be treated yourself,” Beller said, “and it works.”
“St. George is one of the best places in the country, and let’s take care of it. I’ve never been to a place I like better,” he said, adding that he and his wife plan to spend their winters in the area.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.