Joe Kingsley stood on the Plateau Drive property that he and the late Hans Weibel spent more than 5,000 to clean up. At one time, the property was cluttered with junk, including a dilapidated fifth wheel and mobile home, and more than 100 tires. Kingsley said he supports a proposed amendment to the county's land-use code that would better define the meaning of “junk, debris and refuse.” [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

How do you define “junk?”

Is it a pile of scrap metal that someone may have set aside for future use, an inoperable vehicle that someone is storing in his or her front yard, an old appliance collecting rust in plain view, or something else?

Grand County Council members want to know.

The council is seeking public feedback on a proposed amendment to the county’s land-use code that would define what constitues “refuse, debris and junk” in order to strengthen code enforcement actions. Written public comments on the amendment will be accepted through Wednesday, March 29, and the council is expected to vote on the proposal next month.

Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine said the amendment is “pretty straightforward” and took shape following an extensive study of other land-use codes that include similar language.

In its current form, the proposed wording says that areas around buildings and structures shall be kept free of the identified refuse and debris; it would also prohibit the storage of specifically defined junk in yards and open spaces. Levine and others have said the proposal would come in handy in cases where the accumulation of materials on a property poses threats to public health, safety and welfare.

“We need to have these definitions in place in order to have a leg to stand on with respect to code enforcement on these particular issues,” he said.

In some instances, rodents that spread the potentially deadly hantavirus and other diseases find homes in piles of junk or debris. Weeds or flammable materials can also pose fire hazards that put emergency responders’ lives in danger, while other blighted properties that have large accumulations of junk have been widely documented to lower neighboring homeowners’ property values.

Council members solicited residents’ comments on the amendment during a public hearing at their regular meeting on Tuesday, March 21. But apart from former Realtor and Grand County Planning Commission vice chair Joe Kingsley, no one from the public spoke for or against the proposal.

It did, however, draw mixed reviews from council members themselves.

Grand County Council member Chris Baird said he has a hard time understanding how the proposed language would affect people like him, who like to do repairs on their own vehicles, or tinker around with machinery.

“I’m not exactly sure how to put it, but I guess I’m a little bit afraid that some of this could be used almost like as a culture war kind of thing,” Baird said, noting that he comes from an “old-school” Mormon family of machinists, welders and mechanics. “And so a lot of this stuff that you’re listing as junk is stuff that we use all the time, and we stockpile.”

Before he further considers the proposal, Baird said he would like to see a clearer delineation of what constitutes “junk,” and what does not.

According to Levine, the Grand County Planning Commission has already addressed Baird’s concerns, noting that the amended definitions don’t include any prohibitions on storing “stuff” inside, or screening it outside from public view.

“And so if you can manage your belongings in a responsible way that doesn’t hinder a neighborhood or the public health, safety and welfare of the residents of our community, then that’s your prerogative,” Levine said.

On the other hand, he said, the county is facing many situations where residents are “gross violators” who go well beyond “just mindfully holding on” to their possessions.

Grand County Council member Curtis Wells said he believes there’s a lot of middle ground between somebody who is clearly an out-of-control hoarder, and somebody who’s storing supplies, an unregistered vehicle or his granddad’s truck outside.

Having said that, Wells said he thinks it would be hard to draft an amendment that would accurately cover exactly what the county is trying to achieve.

“I think requiring folks from a certain culture, which I belong to, to (get rid of) any kind of material that was just previously described outside of neighbors’ views is going a bit far,” he said. “But I also understand what you guys are trying to achieve: the need to tighten some things up, and to get some folks and their properties that have been out of line and increasingly become an enlarging eyesore … Private property rights are important, but when it’s infringing on someone else and negatively impacting their values and things, it’s a problem.”

Grand County Council members Greg Halliday and Mary McGann both voiced support for the changes in terms of the potential threats that nuisance properties pose to the public’s health, safety and welfare.

Halliday – a longtime volunteer and training officer with the Castle Valley Fire Department – said he understands the need to keep some materials around for future use.

“But when they essentially allow it to become abandoned – they allow weeds to grow up, they allow rodents to move in and live there – then it becomes a fire hazard,” he said.

Halliday recalled his own experience responding to a fire that kids reportedly ignited when they were playing with fireworks. When he and others arrived at the scene, he said, they discovered that someone had used the site as a dumping ground for old propane cylinders.

“That’s the kind of stuff you’re going to run into,” he said.

As a community, Halliday said, residents are asking firefighters to go in and risk their lives in an effort to prevent a fire from burning somebody’s house down.

“And we’re allowing people to contribute to the danger by not keeping the weeds cut down and allowing this stuff to pile up,” he said earlier in the meeting. “That’s what I’m looking at.”

McGann said that other emergency responders will tell anyone the same thing.

“If you talk to firemen … any time a fireman is taken to an emergency room, it’s when they have responded to fires where there (are) debris and chemicals and tripping hazards,” she said. “… And that’s why I really want to see us working on our code enforcement: for the health and well-being of the people who respond to emergencies.”

Wells said he agrees with Halliday’s and McGann’s concerns, but he noted that the amendment names materials like copper, brass, iron, steel and wood as refuse, debris or junk.

“There’s a pretty significant distance between I think what you’re describing and what’s in the definition I’m seeing,” Wells said.

Grand County Council member Rory Paxman questioned why the definitions can’t simply state that something is prohibited if it impedes the safety or welfare of the citizens.

In response, Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald suggested that the county might have to come up with even more specific language.

“If something’s too vague, it won’t hold up in the courts,” he said. “You have to have refined definitions. We might have to do some refining even from this point on what takes place: There has to be a starting point (for code enforcement).”

The county has prosecuted code violations in the past – but not many of them, because it’s difficult to do without a code enforcement officer who can serve as a witness. It’s also been a challenge to get some violators to clean up their properties, he said.

Kingsley said that he and the late Hans Weibel took matters into their own hands to clean up one nuisance property on Plateau Drive, spending at least $15,000 of their own money to fill five construction containers with junk and debris. Even so, he said they “barely (made) a dent” on the nuisance: Kingsley estimates that he will have to spend at least another $5,000 to finish the cleanup, bringing the total costs up to twice his initial estimates.

Countywide, Kingsley said that officials have so many nuisance properties to deal with that it will take them years to get a handle on the problem. He said the proposed amendment defines junk and other refuse in a way that makes it clear what is and isn’t acceptable.

“What I saw as junk was another person’s treasure, and this definition helps draw a line in the sand,” he told the council.

Levine said he thinks that the county would be throwing away the $20,000 it previously committed to a new code enforcement position if it ultimately chooses not to adopt the definitions, or some variation on them.

“Because you can’t ask your code enforcement officer to go out and have a subjective conversation with somebody,” he said.

Proposed amendment aims to better define what constitutes “junk”

If something’s too vague, it won’t hold up in the courts … You have to have refined definitions.

To read the amendment, go to: Scroll down to “County Council,” and download the agenda for the March 21 meeting. The proposed amendment appears on page 175. Written comments on the proposal can be emailed to by March 29, or they can be dropped off at the county council administrator’s office on the west side of the Grand County Courthouse, 125 E. Center St.