South Carolina Livability Courts Settle Neighborhood Complaints

By Gavin Jackson | February 7, 2014

Sitting in Judge Alesia Rico Flores or Judge Michael Molony’s courtroom in Charleston or Judge Debra Jackson’s in Florence, defendants and onlookers realize that while these municipal courts uphold the rule of law, they do so in a different way.

Noise violations, barking dogs, dilapidated houses, improper signage and overgrown lots alike all have their day in Livability Court and now Florentines will have a dedicated Livability Court to hear such concerns twice a month.

Jackson saw the need for Florence’s Livability Court several years ago while serving in municipal court bench and realizing livability issues needed to be separated from the municipal mix of domestic violence, robbery and other cases in her court.

“We average approximately 50 cases every morning on the criminal docket,” Jackson said. “Hearing codes enforcement cases in conjunction with criminal charges does not allow the focus on solutions and problem solving that is necessary in quality of life issues. We have already separated the codes cases out to one afternoon session per month and that has helped some. However the creation of the Livability Court and the appointment of additional judges will enable us to do both, with as much time as it takes to get these matters resolved or fully adjudicated.”

Jackson will now become an administrative judge for the city.

After spending time in Charleston and in Florence, it’s clear that Livability Court should be named compromise court, where all parties work together to address problems without enforcing traditional punishments, unless needed.

Codes enforcement officers might give violators leeway to correct the situation before they cite a resident for an overgrown lot or a dog that barks all night. If not, the matter proceeds to court where matters can still be negotiated and fines suspended if conditions change in a specified time period.

Community Relations Commander and former Florence Police Chief Anson Shells oversees a team of four code enforcement officers who are assigned to districts throughout the city to address neighborhood problems.

“The city manager has put a tremendous amount of investment into neighborhood revitalization efforts, and this Livability Court is a large part of that investment because now we can really encourage people to invest in our neighborhoods,” Shells said. “We’re going to have to clean our neighborhoods up, and Livability Court is a vehicle for accomplishing that.”

One major problem that will be addressed will be the typically tricky situation of dilapidated houses in Florence. It can often be difficult to track down owners, especially of heir property or out-of-state owners, which leads to lots becoming overgrown, abandoned and ripe for illegal activity — affecting property values and the neighborhood’s personality.

Judge Rangeley Bailey, who was sworn in as an associate municipal judge directly over Livability Court, said her experience as a personal injury, disability and Social Security attorney with the Jebaily Law Firm since 2003 has given her perspective on the situations that face many Florentines.

“My goal is for it to get started and to be a success and be a real place for people to come and resolve problems,” Bailey said. “I don’t see it as a place where complaints are brought and people get sent to jail or fined. I want to help people find a solution. Such as if your dogs are barking and drive your neighbor crazy, is there something to be done to help you be a better neighbor?”

Officials in Charleston have found an innovative way to tackle dilapidated property, according to Dan Riccio, who is in a similar position to Shells, and oversees a group of nine code enforcement officers as Charleston’s Livability director said.

“This court gives us the tools to bring a property back into compliance, if the owner of the property or the heirs of the owners of property fail to do so,” Riccio said. “What normally will happen is the judge will order the city to either clean the yard, cut the yard, board the house, whatever maintenance needs to be done to the house to bring it into compliance and they will do that, and the city, in turn, places a lien on the property to recoup money in the future.”

Since the court’s inception in 2003, Riccio said the city has seen a variety of cases that have led to stronger ordinances being enacted, something that is expected in Florence, to preserve Charleston’s charm as a top tourist destination.

“Absolutely other ordinances we have changed are the noise ordinance because we noticed the old ordinance wasn’t affective and amended the minimum standards for vacant houses ordinance to where it puts more responsibility on the owner. Now houses are being maintained more often. For example if you keep a house boarded and secured and the yard clean, it keeps the criminal element out, which in turn makes it safer in community and members of the community are very happy.”

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