County implements taskforce to help with unkept, unsafe properties

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They come from different departments, but they had one common goal — to make Valencia County a safer, cleaner, healthier place to live.

Last month, field officers from county code enforcement, the treasurer’s office, sheriff’s department, animal control, assessor’s office, fire department and even the state environmental health division turned out to sweep through the communities of Jarales and Casa Colorada, down to the Socorro County line and north to Sausalito Estates on the west mesa above the city of Belen.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Valencia County chief code enforcement officer Hoss Foster, left, showed county firefighter Gabriel Griego the area he patrolled during an interdepartmental sweep last month. The goal of the sweep was to identify abandoned buildings, specifically mobile homes and other code violations.

“Initially, the whole purpose of doing the taskforce sweeps was to target abandoned buildings, specifically mobile homes,” said Valencia County Planner Jacobo Martinez.

Last month marked the third such interdepartmental sweep in the county, and the effort has grown into much more.

With eyes on the street, concentrated in a geographical area, officers are able to spot problems beyond abandoned buildings.

What are the conditions of the animals? Are weeds and debris creating a fire hazard? Are street addresses properly displayed on homes? Does that building have the correct permits?

During the sweep, county employees talk to people who are out and about or who come out to see why a county vehicle is idling out on the street.

The purpose of the sweep isn’t to issue citations immediately, but to gather information and then pass it on to the right department.

While out on the sweep, code enforcement officer Johnny Mirabal stops to speak to a resident building a storage shed. He has building permits from the state, but he didn’t file the plans with the county.

If he had, he would have known that the building, which was almost complete, was sitting almost directly on the property line, and that’s a big problem.

County ordinances require all structures, even carports and storage sheds, be at least 15 feet away from property lines to allow emergency vehicles access to the rear of the property.

“He’s going to have to stop building,” Mirabal said.

In the previous two sweeps in other areas of the county, Martinez said the department has been actively working a total of 84 abandoned mobile home cases; 45 of those cases have been resolved.

During last month’s sweep, abandoned mobile homes were sparse but taskforce members did spot other issues — many houses were missing address numbers and even more streets were missing road signs.

The lack of both of those makes it very difficult for emergency responders to locate calls for service.

County firefighter Gabriel Griego was assigned to the area east of the Belen airport.

“Not having the addresses on houses is a big problem,” Griego said, “especially when we’re responding at night with no street lights.”

Griego said he spotted a lot of trash and debris in yards, but no mobile homes that were obviously abandoned. And with fire season upon us, Griego said it’s critical that people keep their properties free of flammable materials.

“People need to keep a defensible space around their homes and buildings,” he said. “We recommend 10 to 15 feet.”

Carl Rael, a code enforcement officer who usually patrols the El Cerro Mission and Meadow Lake areas, said his assigned area was “looking good. People are taking care of their property. I found one abandoned mobile home. The address numbers missing was the biggest problem I saw.”

Out in Sausalito Estates, the treasurer’s department mobile home specialists Eugene Pickett and Louis Sanchez said while the missing address numbers were an issue, the bigger problem was missing street signs.

“The county needs to do what it can, and that’s replacing the street signs,” Pickett said. “It’s hard to tell people they can be cited for not having numbers on their house when the county isn’t replacing the signs. We all have to do our part and the signs are ours.”

Pickett said his department has seen the number of mobile homes delinquent on their property taxes in Sausalito Estates drop in the last decade.

“So it’s been a while since I’ve been out here,” he said. “I see clean yards, which means code enforcement has been out here working.”

Sanchez said they saw a few houses that were obviously empty but they were well taken care of — behind locked gates, with clean yards and the houses in good condition.

As taskforce members spread across the area, the sheriff’s department set up its mobile command center at the Jarales Community Center, manned by Capt. Gary Hall.

“People like seeing it out in the community. As they drive by, they slow down to see what’s going on,” Hall said.

The sheriff’s department sends the command center out for the taskforce sweeps to be a central base for the men and women out on the patrols, and to provide immediate response to a threatening situation.

Martinez said so far, the taskforce hasn’t needed to call in law enforcement.

After several hours out on the highways and byways, the taskforce members met back at the Jarales Community Center for lunch and to report the highlights of their findings.

While they all had maps of the zones they were asked to patrol, most everyone reported that missing street signs made navigation difficult and missing house numbers were also a problem.

Animal control officer Derrick Saiz suggested that the employees in the various departments who spend most of their days in the field start tracking the missing street signs.

“If you can, when you’re out, just keep a list of the street signs that are missing,” Saiz said. “Then we can give them to Jacobo and Hoss (Foster).”

Martinez agreed that gathering the information was the first step to coming up with a plan to address the missing signs.

Foster, the county’s chief code enforcement officer, suggested any replacement signs be made of fiberglass, since the metal ones were most likely being stolen and recycled for scrap value.

“None of us can be out on all these roads,” Foster said. “We have to work together and be each others eyes and ears.”

Another taskforce sweep is planned for later this spring.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.