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Austin Homeowner Must Pay For Code Compliance Department's Mistake

Updated: Tuesday, July 29 2014, 10:38 PM CDT

An Austin homeowner says the city's code compliance department got it wrong and now he has to pay.

Matthew Palmer said he bought a camper about four years ago. He keeps it in his front yard, which is legal if he follows city code.

When a neighbor filed a complaint, Palmer said he then tried to come up to city code.

"I spent two weeks trying to get a hold of the officer from the neighborhood, but he never called me back, so I went ahead and built the fence," Palmer said.

His first attempt at building a fence to screen the camper from the public view came up a few inches short.

"The (code compliance officer) came by and said that wasn't going to fly," Palmer said.

After a couple of meetings with a code compliance officer, Palmer made changes to the new fence.

"They just wanted me to build a panel at the backside of the trailer and the panel closing up the gap," said Palmer.

 The case was closed after the additional $750 in costs. Palmer had it in writing from the city reading, "closed due to voluntary compliance."

However, months later, another complaint was received and a new code compliance officer showed up with additional changes to come up to code.

"He told me that this fence wasn't acceptable," said Palmer. "Well, I said, it's been accepted by a supervisor, and he said, well that person's not my supervisor."

"It was a mistake a year ago," acknowledged Code Compliance Director Carl Smart.

KEYE TV took Palmer's issues to the director to get answers.

In the interview, KEYE TV reporter Adam Racusin showed the director a document that came from his office saying a notice of the violation was issued based on the inspector's interpretation of the code. KEYE TV asked how code inspectors can have different interpretations.

"Unfortunately, it does happen sometimes," said Smart. "Looking at the code with two different sets of eyes -- that can happen."

Smart said his officers need to enforce the code consistently, but KEYE TV wanted to know why the homeowner should be held responsible for the department's mistake.

"As a property owner he is still responsible for what happens on his property," said Smart.

In an email to KEYE TV, Austin City Councilmember Chris Riley said, "Austinites ought to be able to rely on the directions of code officers, and the city needs to do better at ensuring that mistakes like this don’t happen.  Simplifying the code would help, and I'm hopeful about the code revision process that's now underway.  In the meantime, individual cases ought to be resolved fairly and quickly, and residents should not be penalized for relying on the directions of code officers."

Smart did acknowledge the responsibility is on his code officers to be professional and consistent.

"We're working now on putting together a retraining for our inspectors to make sure we've got good consistent enforcement of this type of issue across the city," he said.

In the meantime, Palmer is waiting to see if there will soon be an ending to his code drama.

"They came and hammered a stake about where you're standing saying I have seven days to be in compliance," said Palmer. "I think the next step is court."

At the moment, Palmer's options include fixing the fence, requesting a variance through the city's Board Adjustment or taking the matter to court. 

Since KEYE TV started looking into this we've heard many reports of similar situations.

If something similar has happened to you, email KEYETV Investigative Reporter Adam Racusin at asracusin@keyetv.com.

Austin Homeowner Must Pay For Code Compliance Department's Mistake


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