Unhappy with noise and trash issues from properties near their homes, a few county residents met with Camden County Prosecuting Attorney Brian Keedy July 10 to air their grievances and seek redress on their complaints.
They were directed to speak with Keedy by the Camden County Commission at a July 1 meeting at which the commission saw a large citizen turn out. The county commission recently added a public comment segment to their meeting agendas providing citizens with the opportunity to address the commission.
The citizen special meeting with Keedy — delayed until after the Morris McCabe trial ended — focused on two properties that neighboring residents said were in violation of nuisance and peace disturbance regulations as well as the zoning ordinance.
Despite what seemed to them to be violations of county ordinances or state law, nothing was being done to stop the situations.
Kim Krostue, Dick Coffman and others made complaints about the owner of a mobile home park in their neighborhood where over the last 10 years the owner has reportedly allowed trash and junk to build up over the property as well as leaving weeds to grow up. They also claimed that mattresses and other furniture are often burned on the property.
Alan and Diane Fugit and Richard Danowsky attended the meeting over their noise complaints regarding a lakefront business near their homes, Paradise Tropical Restaurant & Bar. Suzi Johnson also attended the meeting as a concerned citizen.
Paradise has been in the headlines recently over its case with the Camden County Planning Commission. The business was given a conditional use permit to continue playing outdoor music with sound abatement walls to dampen the noise. Paradise has been given until next spring to get the noise abatement structure into place. The planning commission signed a deferred compliance agreement that is allowing Paradise to continue to play outdoor music unabated in the interim.
The Fugits, Danowsky and others were unsatisfied with the ruling because it would not stop the noise, but only lessen it to an unknown degree. A certified appraiser hired by Danowsky stated that any outdoor music hurt the property values of the nearby residential properties and that the level of the noise determined to what extent the value drops.
The neighboring property owners are questioning how the CUP could have been approved when the Unified Land Use Code states that they cannot be awarded in situations where they would hurt the value of neighboring properties.
While one of the CUP's stipulations required that Paradise make a good faith effort to keep the noise down until the sound abatement structure can be built over the winter, residents are still complaining about the level of the noise.
At the meeting, they questioned why there has been no enforcement of the noise problem as a disturbing the peace criminal violation.
Page 2 of 4 - It appears that perhaps miscommunication regarding both of these locations may be part of the issues going unresolved.
No recent complaints regarding the mobile home park had reached the prosecutor's office or the county employee who investigates complaints related to the county's nuisance ordinance on trash and weeds.
The prosecuting attorney's office does not go out looking for violations but investigates complaints when received, Keedy explained.
The neighboring residents have been making their complaints for some time to the county commission or to the P&Z department and seem to have gone nowhere from there.
It's a common experience to feel like you're getting the runaround from government because citizens often have to go to multiple people or departments to have problems addressed, Keedy said, but it is set up to be inefficient in order to limit the authority of any one person and provide for more accountability.
He said it could just be a matter of misunderstanding that these complaints have not been forwarded to his office.
There have been times when he has looked at a certain case and said he could not prosecute it. It was not because he did not want to prosecute those types of cases, he said, but due to the evidence related to the specific case. Prosecution of an alleged violation of a specific law is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Now that his office is aware of these situations, Keedy said they have contacted the mobile home park owner and were working to get the property into compliance.
If the property is not cleaned up within the time frame allowed, Keedy said his office would see whether there was enough evidence to move forward with prosecution. While most property owners contacted by the prosecuting attorney's office about this type of issue clean up after receiving the initial letter, prosecution of the nuisance ordinance has occurred in the past and is possible in this case.
Burning mattresses and other furniture is prohibited by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The neighboring residents were advised to call the DNR Hotline when an incident is occurring.
As for the noise complaints at Paradise, possible violations of state laws on disturbing the peace and possible related harassment can be investigated, Keedy said, though they are notoriously difficult to prosecute because it can be difficult to get a law enforcement officer at the location in time to witness a violation due to noise complaints' low priority for busy officers.
Paradise owner George Tucker was prosecuted for a noise complaint at the business in 2010. The case was settled with a deferred prosecution in which Tucker agreed to turn the music down in order to avoid a $1,000 fine. There was a sort of probationary period of a year for this agreement, but no one appears to have followed up on whether the agreement was met.
Page 3 of 4 - Keedy promised to "ramp up" his office's follow-up on these concerns.
A county employee from the wastewater department present at the meeting advised the citizens to keep checking in with the appropriate departments to ensure that issues don't fall off the radar in often busy offices.
The planning and zoning issues related to Paradise were another matter altogether as the county pursues any alleged violations of these ordinances through civil cases rather than criminal.
Since Camden County became a first class county in 1998, the prosecuting attorney's office is only responsible for criminal cases. State law provides that a first class county — unlike less populated second and third class counties — can have a separate counsel for civil matters.
In Camden County, Charlie McElyea used to provide counsel on the civil side. At some point, that relationship ended.
Keedy said he had offered to take the civil matters back up if the commission funded another assistant prosecuting attorney to help deal with the additional load. That was not done.
The county contracts with a law firm outside of the area to provide counsel for planning and zoning as requested by the P&Z department and the county commission.
At the end of the meeting, the citizens seemed to be satisfied with Keedy's response to their complaints.
"Yes, I think it did clarify some things. Keedy did a very nice job. It opened up multiple channels to try and get complaints resolved," Krostue said.
A wider view of Camden County issues
With the complaints from these citizens as well as other issues troubling Camden County, Prosecuting Attorney Brian Keedy suggested citizens consider the idea of forming a charter government for the county.
As a resident of the area since 1987 and working in the prosecuting attorney's office since 1990, Keedy said the county is suffering from a lot of growing pains.
Planning and zoning, while helpful, would have been more helpful had it been implemented 60 years ago rather than in 2004, he said.
In a position of "playing catch up" with P&Z and with the majority of population growth occurring outside of incorporated areas, Camden County is in a tough spot to deal with some of these issues, Keedy said.
The organization and authorities of county governments are set up by state law and are written with the idea that county governments oversee rural areas.
Municipalities actually have greater authority and are set up better for planning and zoning and other issues related to a more dense population, Keedy said.
The state does allow counties to form a charter government by a vote of the people. A charter would allow citizens to set up a form of government with different authorities than what is allowed for county governments.
Page 4 of 4 - Other counties with charter governments in the state include St. Charles and Jefferson — both in the suburban St. Louis area. There are also other counties in the state now considering switching to a charter over similar problems, according to Keedy.
There would have to be much work and discussion among the citizens of the county to craft the details of the charter to fit the needs that exist.
Keedy said he is not advocating for a charter or an expert on how it would work but suggested residents give it some thought.
The charter government would replace the existing set up. As an example, Keedy said that instead of three county commissioners, there could be seven county legislators - set up more like a municipal board - with possibly a county executive to oversee the different departments on a day-to-day basis.