The newest mayor of Dearing may be young, but he's finding himself facing an old issue: Dearing has no enforcement of building standards.
To make matters even more complicated, local leaders aren't even sure there are any city ordinances in place if they knew who would enforce them.
It all leaves Dearing Mayor Sean Kelley on a slippery slope: He leads a town that has no property taxes and is rooted in a tradition of hands-off government, but facing enough growth to necessitate some kind of control.
And he knows he must don soft political gloves to make any progress.
"My idea was to let people know we are having these kinds of problems...so people won't think we are just sitting here today with no enforcement and tomorrow go 'boom' we've got everything," he said.
Mayor Kelley said he knows most residents do not want to deal with issues such as paying taxes, higher rent, getting permits and having inspections. He said he hopes to have a planning retreat with town council members, so they can "decide on a direction."
A smelly start
The enforcement issue bubbled to the surface last month when Mayor Kelley received a letter from McDuffie County Environmental Health Specialist Tim Mosley concerning a complaint he had received from a renter who was experiencing "sewage back-up" in her house on McGahee Drive.
"There was a problem, but there was nothing that I can do," Mr. Moseley said. "Code enforcement usually handles that, but inside the town of Dearing, I'm told that they don't have the jurisdiction there."
Mayor Kelley said he wrote a letter to the landlord of the house, who told him the problem has been solved, although the house has since been vacated. Because the house had young children dwelling in it, Mayor Kelley said he began checking who does have jurisdiction within the town limits, but all he could find was "hearsay and rumors."
A confusing continuum
Phone calls by The Mirror to County Code Enforcement Officer Gail Newsome, County Planning Commission Director Fred Guerrant, and County Manager Don Norton revealed that Dearing has had no code enforcement for at least 20 years. In fact, none of the officials interviewed knew if written rules were ever in place.
Mr. Guerrant said the problem may be rooted in Dearing's size more than 20 years ago: Maybe town leaders decided Dearing was just too small for issues such as code enforcement, building permits and inspections.
That's probably right, according to Bill Eubank, who served as mayor for 36 years before Ralph Menees took over 10 years ago.
"We weren't having any houses built, so we didn't need enforcements," he said. "It's a small town."
And he's not sure the town is big enough yet for such rules.
"Of course, you've got two ways you can look at it, why you'd want one, you'd have to pay for it first of all, and you'd have to have taxes," he said. "Second of all, the county provides that. They have a man on staff that's all he does is looks after that. So you'd be covered by that from the county at no cost at all."
But whether the county does provide the enforcement is the issue that is unclear.
Ms. Newsome said she hasn't done a single inspection in Dearing in the 11 years she's been on the job. She said Dearing officials wanted it that way.
And for any enforcement to start now, the town council will have to adopt some sort of rules.
"With them being incorporated, I would think there would be a necessity for them to adopt the ordinances that they think they need enforcement on," Mr. Guerrant said. "As for the sanitation issue, if there is not an ordinance relating to that, then generally state regulations would take over."
However, Mr. Mosley, who is employed by the state and works in the county health department, said, in most cases, who enforces depends on the problem.
"It's a housing issue type thing, and the health department does not have a housing ordinance," he said. "Now if it was a septic system problem, if sewage was coming up on the ground outside, then yes, I would have some say so on it. But not on something like that, that's an internal plumbing problem there."
A lingering problem
The house on McGahee Drive is not the first complaint that has been brought to the county office.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Teddy Jackson said he requested an inspection on a house on First Street. Agent Jackson said he was serving a search warrant at the residence. When he entered, he found a small child living there amid holes in the floors and walls and exposed sewage.
"Actually to me, the house should have been condemned as far as the raw sewage running out of the house and out in the back, and the condition of the inside of the house," Agent Jackson said. "And basically (the code enforcement office) just told me there was nothing they could do, and there was nothing done. We just arrested the people there (for drugs) and left it."
Meanwhile, it's left to local officials to figure out a long-term solution to a decades-old problem. One option, according to Mr. Guerrant, may be a contract for enforcement with the county.
"Dearing never has, until recently, showed any interest in that contractual agreement that Thomson has with the county," he said. "...Now, I think Dearing is at least entertaining the idea of us doing some work."