Linda Cameron just wanted to add a guestroom and second bathroom in her modest home in Richland, Washington. But the city said she could not renovate unless she also spent $60,000 to upgrade the public street behind the property —work traditionally covered by public taxes, not by individuals.
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The story is emblematic of a widespread problem across the United States: Cities are exploiting residents by imposing unreasonable and unconstitutional fees and fines to maximize revenue.
Many homeowners relent to the pressure and pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to City Hall. Linda and others, however, are taking a different approach. They are fighting back in court.
Linda’s battle started with a simple application for a building permit.
For nearly 40 years she shared her home with her late husband, Gary. After he died in 2012, Linda considered moving, but ultimately decided to stay and renovate. She hired a contractor, drew up plans and submitted them for approval.
The city found nothing wrong with the proposal in terms of health and safety. But inspectors saw an opening to extract something extra for the city.
A demand letter laid out the terms: Linda would have to pay to widen 400 feet of pavement, install sidewalks, add curbs and build storm drains. Keep in mind, her home is set back far from the street in question and her renovation would have no effect on pedestrian or automotive traffic.
When she responded that she couldn’t afford to renovate her home and the street, the city denied her application. Represented by my organization, the Institute for Justice (IJ), she has taken the city to court to end this abusive practice.
Requirements like Richland’s are called “impact fees.” They are supposed to offset the impact of major new construction on city infrastructure. But when there is no impact, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that cities may not impose the fees.
The intent is to stop what the court calls “out-and-out … extortion.”
Other cities use different methods to squeeze money from homeowners. One popular strategy involves crackdowns on petty or arbitrary code violations.
An entire community in Charlestown, Indiana, felt the wrath of code inspectors after the city weaponized its enforcement program as part of an enrichment scheme for a local developer.
Homeowners got dinged for having chipped paint, torn screens and fallen tree limbs. As the fines accumulated, some were forced to sell their homes to a developer waiting to bulldoze the properties and build an upscale subdivision.
As residents await relief, they can draw inspiration from another IJ case in Pagedale, Missouri.
Code enforcers in that city demanded near perfection from residents. Officials even issued citations for mismatched curtains and front-yard barbeques before IJ intervened and forced a consent decree in May 2018.
Other cities resort to criminal prosecution to raise fine limits.
Doraville, Georgia, punished residents with probation for “crimes” like having cracked driveways. And Indio, California, used the heavy hand of government and self-interested private prosecutors to extract guilty pleas for similar violations.
In one extreme case, retired housekeeper Ramona Morales had to pay $6,000 to the private-firm lawyers who prosecuted her because one of her tenants kept chickens.
Worst of all, some jurisdictions have tried to take away people’s homes for the most trivial reasons.
Jim Ficken was threatened with foreclosure and faces more than $29,000 in fines simply for letting his grass grow too long in Dunedin, Florida. He expected some sort of penalty for creating a neighborhood eyesore, but he underestimated how far the Tampa suburb would go.
Indeed, the city has boasted of running its code enforcement program like a “well‑oiled machine.” Code enforcement revenue climbed from $34,000 in 2007 to $1.3 million in fiscal 2018. That’s more than 38 times as much cash in 11 years.
Cities want to grow, but they must stop treating homeowners like ATMs. The abuses in Richland, Charlestown, Doraville, Indio and Dunedin show what can go wrong.
Laws may vary from city to city, but the Constitution protects the property rights of Americans everywhere to be free from arbitrary and abusive government overreach.
Patrick Jaicomo is an attorney at the Institute for Justice.