Landlords association challenges new city ordinance

STEUBENVILLE – The Jefferson County Landlords Association Wednesday challenged the constitutionality of a new ordinance that will allow the city to charge property owners for repeat police responses to the same location within one year.

The criminal nuisance legislation was unanimously approved by City Council Tuesday night and is set to take effect on Aug. 8.

Attorney Aaron Miller, who is representing the association, said he also is researching a second ordinance approved Tuesday night that will permit property owners to petition the city to create zoning overlay districts in order to cap the number of single-family rental houses at the current number.

“I am looking into the constitutionality of that legislation. We may take action on that ordinance in the near future,” noted Miller.

City Law Director S. Gary Repella had no comment on the legal action Wednesday afternoon. He said he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit.

The criminal nuisance ordinance was originally proposed by 2nd Ward Councilman Mike Johnson as part of his “Broken Windows” policy.

“The criminal nuisance ordinance was modeled after laws in other Ohio cities and a law in East Lansing, Mich., that was upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court. This law is designed to protect the property owners, including the landlords, and applies to all property owners in the city. The city of Pittsburgh has similar laws. And, I believe this new law will be upheld by the courts,” Johnson said Wednesday afternoon.

Miller said the new criminal nuisance law, “imposes upon property owners a duty to control activities on their property and within 1,000 feet of the property line. The city plans to impose financial sanctions ranging from $250 to $1,000 against property owners depending on the number of violations cited within a 12-month period.”

“The state of Ohio has existing landlord tenant laws and they have not included this type of language in the Ohio Revised Code,” said Miller, who attended the Tuesday night city council meeting for the third and final reading of the ordinance.

The approved legislation allows the city to fine a property owner for repeated police visits. After the third police visit in one year the property owner will face a $250 fee, the fourth visit will come with a $500 charge, the fifth visit will cost $750 and a $1,000 charge will apply to all police visits after the fifth visit.

Property owners will have the right to appeal the nuisance fee to the city manager.

The lawsuit, filed in Jefferson County Common Pleas Court, asks for Ordinance 2014-65, titled criminal activity nuisances, to be declared unconstitutional for vagueness, an imposition of legal responsibility beyond the property owners’ property and having no relationship to the protection or furtherance of the public health, safety and welfare of the residents.

The lawsuit also claims the ordinance, “imposes police powers and requires the lawsuit plaintiffs to perform patroling of city streets and to search out and penalize those engaging in criminal activity.”

“I know council is trying to eliminate the criminal element in the city. But what if there is an 85-year-old woman who has a little dog. The dog gets out of the house three times in a year. Her property could be declared a nuisance and her landlord is fined by the city for the dog getting out of the house,” related Miller.

The case was assigned to Common Pleas Judge Joseph Bruzzese.

No hearing date was set yet and Miller said the city has 28 days to respond to the legal action.

“We wanted to sit down with City Council to discuss the criminal nuisance law but we were never invited to discuss the issue. It is a shame we have to use money for an attorney that could have been used for repairs to our rental properties,” said Jerome Hagerty, president of the Jefferson County Landlords Association.

Hagerty said Tuesday, “Steubenville has the reputation of denying any small businesses from trying to operate in the city. We are a small business that provides a service to the community.”

The landlords association took legal action against the city in late 2004 when the organization claimed discrimination against landlords in the city.