The Illinois River is designated as a protected scenic stream, and it draws thousands of visitors to the area each year, boosting tourism and providing revenue for the city.
But a number of citizens also live and own businesses along Scenic State Highway 10, and as property owners, they have the right to do what they will with their real estate.
Audrey Buffington is one such property owner, and she would like to see regulations enacted – preferably at the state level – to prevent trash and debris from building up in the area.
“It is such a beautiful place,” said Buffington. “I’ve read we have plans to turn Tahlequah into a place similar to Eureka Springs, Ark., and I think homeowners [within the Illinois River corridor] should make a collective effort at getting signs put up about penalties for littering.”
Buffington recently had a tenant on her property – a caretaker, of sorts – who allowed a year’s worth of garbage and other debris to accumulate. The tenant then moved, leaving the responsibility of hauling off the garbage to Buffington.
“I think [people like that] should have to come back and clean up their mess or face a fine,” said Buffington. “In some states, officials go through the garbage, find out who it belongs to, tracks them down and charges them a fee for having to clean it up.”
After removing the mountain of garbage, Buffington asked local, county and state officials if regulations exist to hold litterbugs accountable.
“I talked to the state, and they said there were no laws about debris on private property,” said Buffington.
Oklahoma Scenic River Commission Administrator Ed Fite confirmed Buffington’s report on the lack of state regulations.
“Really, nobody has zoning authority, other than possibly the floodplain manager,” he said. “The Oklahoma Department of Transportation can fine people for littering on rights-of-way, but that’s it.”
Troy Travis, engineer with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, indicated regulations are in place to keep rights-of-way free of debris, but there are no zoning regulations for private property.
Right now, his primary concern is abating the use of personal property along ODOT’s rights-of-way on S.H. 10.
“You may have seen the signs along U.S. Highway 62, S.H. 10 and S.H. 82, indicating the safety corridor in this area,” said Travis. “There is supposed to be stepped-up law enforcement, and there’s also supposed to be an engineering review of those corridors to make them safer. We’re constantly trying to keep encroachments off the rights-of-way – signs, in particular. Typically, we go after the worst offenders, those who cause safety issues and those who cause people to complain. In the case of the safety corridor, ODOT and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol have been trying to work together to get those encroachments removed, at least on the southern portion of S.H.10.”
Travis said the notification and removal process began in May.
“So far, we’ve gotten some compliance, and there are those who have not complied,” he said. “For those who aren’t, we’ll probably be taking legal action soon.”
District 1 County Commissioner Doug Hubbard said he has no control over debris buildup on private property along S.H. 10.
“There’s not a lot we can force [property owners] to do, as far as the county is concerned,” said Hubbard. “There’s no zoning to cover these kinds of issues. We really have no rights to do anything unless it creates a health hazard – at least, not that I’m aware of.”
Hubbard conceded other areas have zoning laws requiring debris-ridden property issues be addressed by stakeholders, but none exist here.
“Zoning is a real big issue,” said Hubbard. “It involves all aspects of the rights of individuals to things on their own property. I don’t know that you could zone an area just for trash.”
Fite believes many people move to outside the city to be left alone, and that the political climate in this area will not allow for zoning regulations.
“People move out to the country to be individuals,” said Fite. “Until the area becomes more populated, zoning will not happen.”
But Fite agrees more attention should be paid by property owners when it comes to keeping the area clean.
“The S.H. 10 corridor, in my opinion, needs some attention with regard to debris on property owned by both individuals and businesses,” he said.
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