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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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September 27, 2003: Enforcing Residential Zoning

Q: Based on requests from a number of readers, it might be time to do an update on a column I wrote about a year ago on the issue of "no more than three unrelated people" living in a house in a residentially zoned area. Apparently the first column led to many question and concerns directed to the City and was one factor that triggered a public panel discussion involving representatives from Fort Collins, Greeley, and Boulder explaining how each "enforces" this kind of ordinance. Because of lack of space, discussion about Boulder will be excluded.

A: Let's start with Greeley. A policy decision has been put in place so any inquiry, even an anonymous "tip" over the telephone, will be pursued. Either a letter will be sent to the owner or someone from the City will go out and talk to the parties involved. In either case, at least one physical trip will be made to the premises.

Greeley of course would like to get a "signed" confession but is more than willing to investigate on it own without the necessity of neighbors spying on the household, compiling information, and then needing to testify in court. In fact, Greeley has in the past hired an investigator to gather facts.

Greeley looks into about 60 of these matters each year. Ninety percent are settled at the first stage of investigation, with almost all of the others reaching conclusion at the second stage. Greeley acknowledges that it has not had to go to Court in the last few years and while admitting that the burden of proof is high, does not seem to feel that proving "beyond a reasonable doubt" will inhibit it from the judicial process. The representative from Greeley also seemed to express the opinion that their municipal court would enforce the ordinance.

From what I was able to glean, it appears to me that Fort Collins' approach and apparent policy directives differ from Greeley's procedures and philosophy. Our city will act only if a signed affidavit is secured and apparently the affidavit that is tendered to the complainant to execute is accompanied by an explanation of how difficult, from Fort Collins' point of view, it is to win in court. The concerned neighbor is also advised of possibly being called to testify. Fort Collins, after receiving the signed document, will send a letter to the landlord. Apparently, the situation is then corrected by the property owner most of the time. If nothing is accomplished with the landowner, then personal contact with the occupants may be made. But unless the tenants "confess" or sign an affidavit, Fort Collins feels little else can be done, although independent additional investigation has occurred here.

Like Greeley, Fort Collins claims a high ratio of compliance once the city becomes involved. But unlike Greeley, I was told that Fort Collins is reluctant to take anything to Court without a signed affidavit or a supportable oral "confession" because of the burden of requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a violation has occurred.

So apparently nothing really has changed much in the last year between Greeley and Fort Collins. There still seems to be a definite difference in policy and practical approach to triggering the process and then following the steps to possible legal action. But maybe therein lies the perceived differences by the citizenry in both towns as to who is and who is not enforcing an ordinance and the building frustrations and anger contained in the inquiries I have received in the last few weeks. And despite a local columnist's observation that this is an obscure law that has come to light only recently, in my personal observation, this issue has not been obscure ever since it was first enacted in 1964 and has been a hot button issue for nearly four decades in Fort Collins.

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