City code enforcement and permitting bring new efforts and a couple growing pains

MARFA — After Marfa’s code compliance officer departed last year, the city shifted code enforcement into the hands of Marfa Police Department, who completed their training and began enforcing ordinances this January. The new push has grown the number of permits the city is issuing, and both law enforcement and residents are still adjusting to the new format.

According to the city, officers began their enforcement efforts with investigations related to city rules on weeds and debris, recreational vehicle (RV) issues (including unauthorized parking and residence), animal permits, including large animal permits and permits for dogs and cats, improper use of city right of way, building without a permit and demolition without a permit.

Raul de Hoyos, the owner of Cowboy Welding & General Construction was working a minor construction job on a building in town earlier this year when the project was halted. “The whole project was stopped,” said his wife Carla de Hoyos, adding that her husband’s role was to “stucco on the building that somebody else had built.”

The project was halted for lack of a permit, and delayed further when the property owner couldn’t supply a survey to accompany the application. “The client didn’t have a survey, because he had inherited this property from his grandparents,” Carla said. “He never bought the property.”

Due to a chronic shortage of surveyors in the region, the project was delayed even longer. For the de Hoyos, delays mean losing out on business that they rely on for income. Carla also believed that shortages of city staffing for handling permits contributed to the extended wait, which lasted over six weeks.

City Manager Mandy Roane said this week that she has set aside her Wednesdays entirely to work on permitting. “I only look at permits once a week. If you have everything, I can get it to you that week, so it might take a week,” she said. “What happens a lot of times is people don’t have the correct paperwork.”

That was the case with the client de Hoyos was working for, where a permit could not be issued without a survey. The survey ultimately revealed the building had been built over the property line at some point, which led to the project being indefinitely delayed for de Hoyos.

“If she’s only working on Wednesdays and we don’t know how many other people are applying to permits, it’s affecting us as workers because we can’t proceed,” Carla said. “I think the city needs to gear up and get more personnel on the job.”

Despite the difficulties they have faced lately, she and her husband Raul agree that permits are generally a good idea. Raul is currently working on a project where the owner procured a permit “and there’s no problem there,” Carla said.

Earlier this year, Roane was advising that permits could take three to five weeks, but already she has been able to reduce that window to around two weeks, though it varies depending on the size and complexity of the project.

Non-compliance with code can lead to a case with a fine of up to $2,000, but City Manager Roane said for now the city is just giving warnings. “This is not a revenue thing. We’re not trying to fine people,” she said. “We just want people to follow the rules.”

When an officer investigates and finds something out of compliance, the city leaves a door hanger at the residence or business that explains the issue. “You have 10 days to fix it,” she said, but even that has some flexibility. “We don’t expect everything fixed overnight. When they go back we just want to see progress.” To date, the city has not yet issued a single fine for noncompliance under the new enforcement plan.

“The Marfa Police Department follows a Community Policing Model and will work with citizens to become compliant with City Ordinances/State Law,” the city website explains. “Anyone found in violation will receive a written warning. If the situation is remedied, no further action will be taken.”

The city’s switch from having a dedicated code compliance officer to giving the job to local law enforcement was a practical one, Roane suggested. “They already are driving around town, see people, have a presence. They do enforcement, that’s already their job,” she said.

While the city had initially announced junk vehicles would be a target for enforcement, Roane said the city is delaying that plan, since currently there aren’t any local places to dispose of junk vehicles. “We want people to have a solution and be able to give them an answer,” she said. To that end, she has been calling places in El Paso and Midland looking for the solution.

Along with new enforcement efforts happening, Roane is also dealing with a sheer increase in the number of permits requested that get projects into code compliance. “Last year I wrote 30 the whole year, and I’m on 35 right now,” Roane said, adding there were 11 more permit applications waiting on her desk that still needed additional paperwork from the permit applicant.

The revenue from permits has increased too, already netting around $15,000 this fiscal year, Roane said, though those funds can only be used for the city to pay for building-related expenses like surveys, software and resources for code enforcement.

The growing revenue points to more building projects in town and more compliance with getting the proper permitting for that kind of work. “Half the permits I’ve written are people who started construction without a permit and then code enforcement asked them to come in and speak with me,” Roane said.

Last Thursday, Marfa Police arrived at Marfa homeowner Norman Boyd’s property, asking to see a permit. Workers were on-site, stuccoing a casita, and pushed back on the idea that the stucco job needed permitting, asking to see where in the ordinance a permit was required for that work.

The officer returned to the site later with the ordinance, and though the workers didn’t agree with the officer, they ceased work for the day, waiting for Boyd to reach the city manager. Boyd read through the ordinance and didn’t believe he needed a permit either.

The following day, Roane told him the reason the officer stopped work was because Boyd’s property had “a fairly large stack of wood in my backyard that is old, used cedar fence pickets that I’m using for fencing on the property. [The officer] saw that and thought there was some construction taking place.”

This week, Roane said she didn’t believe officers needed more training for ordinance enforcement. “They knew stuccoing was fine, it was the extra building material,” she said. “They were asking questions because the gentleman had a yard full of building materials.”

“We’ve lost a day of work,” Boyd said, “but I felt like the process, to be honest, was pretty fair.” He pointed to permit practices in his home city of Austin which he said “can become very contentious.”

“Mandy Roane said ‘come talk to us about what you’re doing,’” Boyd said. “I feel like there is that spirit behind this ordinance. It’s not intended to penalize homeowners, it’s meant to get an understanding of what kind of building is in place so that things remain safe and to code,” an attitude Boyd appreciated.

He did question certain permits that require letters from neighbors. “I know my neighbors, but that seems like an awfully big ask,” he said. “If you have a neighbor with a personal grudge against you they could prevent you from doing something with your home,” he thought, but overall he supported the permitting process.

Roane said that the city is still working to improve the new process. “We know it’s not a perfect process,” she said this week. “We’re not trying to be hard on people, and not trying to inconvenience people. We want everyone to follow the rules, so we’re enforcing equally; we’re not just hitting one side of town.”

When he purchased his property 12 years ago, Boyd said the casita on his property “had wire running everywhere and was clearly not done up to code,” he said. “We need to be able to ensure things being built are going to last and be safe to live in, and from that perspective I think it’s good.”

“It’s important for growth,” the homeowner said, “Particularly with all the growth that’s taking place in Marfa.”

Visit https://cityofmarfa.com/code-enforcement to learn more about the codes being enforced and https://cityofmarfa.com/apply-for-building-permit to learn more about the city’s required permits.


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