SUZETTE COOK/Alachua County Today

 Rolling marquees do not comply with the current codes of Newberry.

 City of Newberry residents and businesses can expect attention to be paid to city codes in the near future as the city tightens the reins on code violations that have gone unchecked for several years.

According to Newberry City Manager Mike New and Director of Planning and Economic Development Bryan Thomas, a restructuring in staffing at the city has allowed for full-time Code Enforcement Officer Connie Goode to start addressing concerns brought to the city and the commission by citizens.

“Because of budget constraints, we really didn’t have a dedicated code enforcement program, Thomas said.

“Changes and reorganizations created an opportunity for a code enforcement officer,” he said. “Now we have several years of catch up to accomplish.

“When you have years of time where you don’t have code enforcement, people kind of get it in their heads that if nobody’s saying anything then it must be okay,” Thomas added about why there is a need for a code enforcement officer.

“Just because you’ve been allowed to do something for an extended period of time, doesn’t mean you can continue doing it once we are enforcing codes more stringently than we have in the past.”

Thomas said the city is taking a friendly approach to re-educate both residents and businesses about possible violations and the procedure to rectify them.

“You don’t want to jump into it and start citing people,” he said. “You ramp up slowly whether it’s businesses or residences.”

A notice will be in the next utility bill alerting citizens and businesses of some codes they may not be aware of such as the process of cutting a tree down in city limits. Since Newberry is a part of the Tree City USA program, Thomas said a $25 permit is required to remove a tree in Newberry.

“We’ve had a rash of people cutting down trees without getting a permit,” Thomas said. “The $25 permit is necessary to make sure they aren’t cutting down a protected tree.”

The city will also be notifying local tree service companies reminding them that they have to get a tree removal permit.

According to Thomas, Goode has already started visiting businesses and residents about issues reported by citizens and elected officials.

“Connie will just knock on the door, introduce herself,” Thomas said. “Most of the people didn’t know it was a code enforcement violation or jut hadn’t thought about and are happy to comply.”

For residences, Thomas said debris such as out of commission vehicles or containers with scrap metal are some of the obvious violations being reporter.

 “She’s been very successful getting people to voluntarily to comply and feel good about it,” Thomas said about the initial warnings which started last week.

“Eighty to 90 percent end in voluntary compliance in a reasonable amount of time,” he said. Thomas said the crackdown is not about the city making money from citations or fines.

“If we never have to call the code enforcement board to a hearing to put somebody up before the board,” he said.

Currently there are five members sitting on the Newberry Code Enforcement Board. Vinell Whitfield, Debra Campbell, Jim Stanfield, Rance Green and Jessica Norfleet.

The code enforcement process begins with a visit and verbal warning of what needs to be done for compliance and specifies in what time period the violation should be corrected.

“Then a friendly letter as a reminder, beyond that, talk once more and then formal notice saying it’s a formal citing for a code violation.”

The final step if the violation is not corrected  involves scheduling a hearing with the code enforcement board. The biggest concerns the city is getting reports of about residences are dilapidated and parked vehicles and local businesses are exhibiting a wide range of signage that is not all within the sign ordinance specification.

“Look up and down State Road 26 in the downtown area,” Thomas said, “Almost every sign would be considered non-conforming. However, most of them predate the passage of the code enforcement ordinance. If you have to replace the sign, it has to be brought in compliance.”

The marquees on rollers that letters can be changed on, have never been allowed in Newberry, Thomas said.

And often when business owners are notified of a violation they “They point to the examples up and down the street, so it’s difficult to get them to understand.”

Thomas said the city is “not in love with the current sign ordinance,” and he plans to revamp it by first researching current and best practices.

“You want signage that works for your businesses that get the message out,” he said. “But you don’t want to be so restrictive, that the sign you allow them to put up is ineffectual.”

According to Newberry Mayor Bill Conrad, two main concerns he hears being reported are overgrown vacant lots and signs out of compliance.

“We’ve got some lots that are growing wild and have become a nuisance to the neighbors,” he said. “And the last time we did a survey, 80 percent of our businesses were out of compliance of the sign ordinance. We want to work with our businesses to have attractive signs that fit in with our codes.”