“We have something that’s called the ‘broken window theory,’” said Escambia County Environmental Enforcement officer, Sgt. Steven Littlejohn. “You start out with broken windows in an abandoned home and the [affliction] starts taking over the whole neighborhood if not corrected.”
The Environmental Enforcement enforces and investigates codes, ordinances, state statutes, and administrative code violations committed in Escambia County. Sgt. Littlejohn says the bulk of offenses are trash debris, landscape overgrowth, inoperative vehicles and dilapidated structure violations or complaints.
According to the Escambia County Property Appraiser’s office, residential real estate is sagging locally and property values have declined.
Sgt. Littlejohn attributes some of Escambia County’s real estate woes to 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. He also stated additional increases in properties that are not up to code can be attributed to our nation’s poor economic condition.
“Sometimes the banks take [the properties] over and they don’t want to invest money in them; Sometimes the costs of the repairs outweigh the value of the property,” said the veteran officer with over 26 years of experience.
Buildings that are not up to code, especially abandoned properties, not only affect a community’s property value (many property assessments are based on the surrounding properties) but also can have negative affects on the neighboring estates.
“[In abandoned properties] you’d have all type of illegal activities going on in these buildings like prostitution, drug dealing and the possibility of arson,” Littlejohn said. “Once you let one [property] start going, it becomes a snowball effect. Before you know it you have a neighborhood no one wants to live in.” “We want to encourage compliance, not punishment,” said former Escambia County Attorney, Janet Lander.
Lander, appointed by the Escambia County Commission to arbitrate Tuesday’s proceedings, said consequences for non-compliance can be very serious. The county can issue fines that can reach $15,000 for noncompliance. Lander said the county is not trying to punish individuals but to help those who still have an interest in their property.
Littlejohn agrees. “Were not here to penalize people,” he says. “What were trying to do is get people to straighten out their own problems before it becomes a community problem.”
Littlejohn said his department assists in securing funding for individuals who don’t have the capital to make necessary home improvements. “Blight multiplies blight,” he said. “If you don’t correct it and get a handle on it, you’ll have one blighted property after the other.”