Christopher Roach fills up the old, white county pickup with over 300,000 miles on the odometer at the county farm, then heads out on the road. There’s work to do this morning — lots of it.
Three months into the job and the county’s lone code enforcement office has quite the caseload. The former official with both the state and federal Department of Agriculture opted to quit traveling around the southeast — he spent 38 days working away from home during Hurricane Michael — and decided to work close to home, accepting a job in April as the county’s code enforcement officer. Madison County commissioners smiled as Roach rattled off one detail after another in encyclopedic fashion about state codes in a meeting earlier this year. The board was pondering what to do about their old animal carcass disposal practices. They turned to Roach, who drafted a new plan that has now been implemented, with a flow chart to spell out clearly who is responsible in what situations for the disposal of animals.
Commissioners have also made tackling county eyesores a priority, those properties with solid waste issues that pose not only aesthetic issues, but potential health hazards. And Roach is the man addressing that matter. He’s busy, very busy.
On this particular day, Roach’s first stop is at a Madison County house with trash and debris strewn across the yard. He’s been there before, and he’s checking to see if the resident has made any effort to clean up her property before her court date. Her neighbors complained about the mess. And Roach and building inspector Eddie Pritchett are also addressing structural issues with the home, trying to get the homeowner to make needed changes. A teenager also lives there. And Roach said such situations involve getting the Department of Family and Children’s Services in to do a wellness check. Roach said the welfare of children is at the top of his list and he is particularly attentive to what is happening at properties around schools and daycare centers.
Roach raps his knuckles on the front door: “Code enforcement,” he says. In the yard are old vehicles, bags of trash, piles of clothes, detached fencing, toolboxes, coolers, stray shoes. Roach never knows how a person is going to respond to a visit from code enforcement.
“Sometimes we go places and the first words out of their mouths are curse words,” said Roach. “And you have to be able to adjust to the situation.”
Roach said he gets a lot further with kindness than with harshness. He said that if you anger some people, they’ll act out of spite and won’t clean anything up.
“You have to be a people person,” he said.
But he said he also has to show a different side at times when he’s met with hostility. If they get ugly, “you have to show an individual you’re not going to take their crap.”
There seems to be no one home, but then a woman finally comes to the door, saying she was asleep.
The two speak amiably, and Roach reminds her of her court date, adding that he’ll be back prior to that. He tells her progress on the cleanup will help with the judge. He asks if she’s seen more snakes, and she shares a tale of a copperhead that scared her but that her daughter killed.
“When y’all get it cleaned up, that will keep them (snakes) further away from the house,” he tells her.
Back in the truck, Roach said no progress had been made. The code enforcement officer is looking for cooperation. He takes a tiered approach, basically asking first, then applying more pressure the more resistant someone is to making needed changes. He tries to get people to fix their problems without judicial involvement.
“One of the biggest myths about code enforcement officers is that they strive to give out as many tickets as possible to give out money for the city/county,” said Roach. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. The department’s first action is usually a written notice of violation, allowing a reasonable amount of time to make corrections before a ticket is issued.”
Roach said that 60 to 70 percent of the time, people “either don’t know or don’t care to know” that they are violating a code.
“Outreach and educating the general public is step one,” he said.
But if a person chooses not to comply, he feels confident he can win in court. He said he won’t waste anyone’s time taking an issue to court unless he knows he can win.
Roach puts the old truck in drive and hits the road again, pointing out one property, then another. The 2002 Madison County High School graduate, a leader of his son’s Boy Scout troop whose family has farmed locally since 1785, said his role is to enforce local laws and help the community stay safe. He patrols the county two-to-three hours a day and has a notebook with three full pages of issues he’ll address when he can, but his one-man office already has dozens of cases. He said about 50 percent of cases are from citizens’ complaints. Another 50 percent are issues he’s spotted himself. He aims to be proactive.
“If I’m doing my job right, half the community will never know what I’m doing,” he said. “Because I’m hitting the problems before they can bring it in.”
There are certain complaints he receives that he can’t address. For instance, he notes that some people call, saying their neighbor’s grass is too high, and he doesn’t have authority to make a person cut their grass. Sometimes personable squabbles involve getting code enforcement involved. And he says that when he receives complaints he also meets with the complainant and if that person has violations, then he’ll address those, too. But Roach said he treats all cases the same, no matter who is involved, noting that he recently issued a violation to co-worker’s family member.
Roach’s job involves coordination with multiple agencies. He has radios in his truck to contact approximately 50 agencies. He deals with codes on a wide variety of subjects, such as building, septic, solid waste, forestry, water, fire, vendor standards and community compliance programs. He is overseeing a river-buffer infringement case in which a person used machinery to clear land too close to the Broad River. He oversees timber issues and patrols known frequent solid waste disposal sites. He helps oversee the monitoring of wells around an old acidic pond where long ago hydrochloric acid was used to clean cotton seed. He addresses illegal habitation in unsafe conditions. He sees a lot of homes with solid waste issues. He recently helped one couple dispose of hundreds of tires — that were already on their property when they bought it — through the county’s Tire Amnesty Program.
Roach said enforcement involves not just knowing the violations, but also knowing people’s rights.
“There’s a lot of accumulated waste in the county,” he said. “And for me, legally, not only do you have to know the codes and ordinances, you also have to have knowledge of the legal system and understanding of constitutional rights….I will not just go harassing people.”
Roach talks about the recent dead cow on Hwy. 72, how he located the ear tag and was able to identify whose cow it was by tracking it with the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the sale barn. The owner “honestly believed that since the cow was dead and not on her property that she didn’t have to deal with it,” he said. She was issued a citation.
He drives on and points out a house with a belligerent man refusing to leave a condemned property, adding that the matter will go to court soon.
“The structure of that mobile home is not fit for human habitation,” he said. “He’s ripped the walls out. There’s exposed wires. There’s dog fecal matter on the ground. The floors are going. Water’s leaking.
He thinks we’re doing it to be mean to him, but we have to explain that is for your safety and anybody else’s safety who may be in here.”
Moments later, a man flags down the code enforcement truck to talk about trash bags left by the road at a different property. Roach explains that there’s nothing code enforcement can do about the property at the moment, explaining that the trash is bagged up, not torn open, and that there’s an eviction happening at the house. He tells the man about the rights of both the property owner and the evicted and the timelines both have for action under the law. The man veers off topic, talking about church, and Roach listens, then shares his own church background. He gives the man a business card and encourages him to call when needed.
Roach then passes the house of a retired woman who lives alone and has had recent surgeries. She has solid waste in her front yard sitting in tall grass and Roach has gotten complaints from neighbors. He said he likes the idea of getting kids involved, through 4-H perhaps, to help in hardship cases when people simply can’t physically manage a cleanup or have the funds to make it happen. He said the woman had tears in her eyes when he brought up the possibility.
Roach and Pritchett then meet up at a home with an ongoing septic leak. There’s a ditch at the corner of the structure where the water and sewer lines enter the home, right next to the power source. A neighbor has complained about the septic runoff. And Roach has been to the home multiple times. This time, the woman has had the septic leak repaired. But there are several hazards at the trailer where several adults and two children live. Pritchett explains the building citations to an unhappy resident as other residents watch.
Roach and Pritchett leave in separate vehicles and head back to the office they share in the planning department, where they banter back and forth.
It’s lunch time, and Roach walks into the office…then quickly back out. Another call, a timber issue. He walks hurriedly out the back door of the county complex.
County code enforcement — on the road again.