By SEAN ROWLEY
City councilors are mulling a proposed ordinance that would require property owners to either clean up graffiti left behind by vandals, or face fines or abatement.
Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols introduced the proposal Monday night.
“Some people may view this as an ordinance that would victimize a property owner twice,” Nichols said. “They have obviously been attacked by a vandal, and someone has painted something like, ‘Live every week like it’s shark week’ on the side of a building. Basically, though, some of those sayings have been on the side of those buildings for an extraordinarily long time. It’s because there is very little incentive for it to be removed. It can be costly – a bucket of paint for $30, to something more substantial, admittedly. The unfortunate part is, the longer it is there, the worse it makes the environment for the surrounding property owners and visitors – particularly, in this case, tourists, who congregate downtown.”
From the time the city’s code enforcement officer notices the graffiti, property owners would have 20 days to get rid of it. If the graffiti was still in place after 20 days, the city could provide written notice to the property owner, who would then have 10 days to remedy the situation.
“It pretty well mimics what we do with high weeds and grass,” Nichols said.
Failing to clean up the graffiti could result in a fine or abatement by the city.
“You say it’s like weeds and grass, but that’s something the property owner did themselves,” Ward 1 Councilor Diane Weston said. “With graffiti, they are a victim of a crime. I have a hard time, especially when I read that we could eventually file a lien against the property. I just feel like they’re being victimized a second time.”
Nichols told councilors he, too, sees how the ordinance could be viewed as victimizing a property owner twice.
“But after a certain amount of time, would you not consider it neglect?” he asked.
Ward 4 Councilor Linda Spyres asked if the ordinance could be written to target “gang graffiti.” She and other councilors said they like some of the local markings – like the “shark week” slogan painted on a downtown building.
“Well, that would be subjective, probably, and harder,” said Nichols. “I understand the logic – but eventually, [the graffiti] begins to victimize, unintentionally, the people around them. I mean, how long do you let it go on?”
Nichols said the city would also be required to clean up its own property, including street signs, when they are vandalized.
Nichols: ‘There will be some discomfort’
Councilors discussed giving property owners more time to meet the city’s requirements. Nichols said he used the city’s ordinance for high weeds and grass nuisances when cobbling together the graffiti ordinance, and wouldn’t object to altering the time frame.
“We can handle this through the general nuisance code; I’m just hoping that we delineate that process and make a statement that we don’t want it. The power of the city to take care of this already exists,” said Nichols. “I just know that there has been a lot of talk to me about the need to beautify this community. We’re going to have to take some steps to do that. There will be some discomfort.
“Whether it’s an act of God, like a storm, that tears the canopy off your business, or randomly being tagged by a graffiti artist, you have an obligation to maintain your property. I by no means am trying to be hard on those people who have been victims; I don’t want it to be misunderstood – they are victims. But I’d like to limit the damage.”
The proposal outlines “graffiti removal standards” for property owners. Paint colors to cover graffiti would have to match the original color of the surface, or the property owner would be required to repaint the entire area “with a new color aesthetically compatible with existing colors and architecture.”
“Graffiti shall be removed or covered completely in a manner that renders it inconspicuous to the satisfaction of the code enforcement officer,” the proposal reads.
Gary Cacy, a member of the city’s planning and zoning board, reminded councilors they had, just minutes before, considered tearing down a house “because it needed paint.” He referred to an appeal by Jason Choate on a September decision by the city’s abatement board to demolish a structure in the 500 block of West Shawnee.
“I’m not meaning to offend anybody by the comment, but you guys were considering tearing down a house because it needed paint,” Cacy said. “If you’re going to tear down a house because it needed paint, or trim around the windows, I don’t think it’s out of the question to give somebody a reasonable amount of time to ask them to clean up the outside of their business.”
Councilors were unable to vote on the proposal Monday night, but will see it reappear on a future city council agenda.