Yet another town is enforcing a dumb rule banning people from having inoperable automobiles on their property because some people find those cars “unsightly.” This time, the town that could make life tough for low-income households and car enthusiasts is West Memphis, Arkansas.
Last summer, I reported on a 70-year-old named Ron Dauzet, who was (and still is) being forced to remove 20 cars per month from his collection of over 200 vehicles. The local township stops by every month to count his progress as they enforce the blight ordinance banning unregistered, uncovered vehicles on private property. It’s a tragic story about local government overreach, but the same kind of thing is apparently happening around the country.
Just have a look at what Fox 13 news reports is going on the in West Memphis, Arkansas, where the police department will soon be enforcing Ordinance 1298, threatening owners of inoperable vehicles with fines between $250 and $1,000:
West Memphis’ city clerk sent me the full ordinance (embedded below), which includes the following description of the ban:
The owner or person in control of any private premises shall at all times maintain the premises free of inoperable vehicles.
The ordinance defines “inoperable motor vehicle” as any car that doesn’t have a current license plate, that has any wheels removed, or that cannot be legally operated on the streets due to things like “lack of proper mufflers, tires, headlights, or other mechanical defects.” This includes anything that prevents the car from being unable to move under its own power.
The ordinance justifies itself by saying such cars don’t look pretty and that they are a health hazard:
It having been found and determined by the City Council of the City of West Memphis, Arkansas, that inoperable motor vehicles are unsightly, and create a traffic and health hazard, an emergency is hereby declared to exist, and this Ordinance being necessary for the preservation of the public health, safety, and well-being of the Citizens...of West Memphis...
This is not a new ordinance, with the date at the bottom reading 1987. But recently, the West Memphis Police Department sent out warnings to residents, telling them about a new fine and fee schedule that residents will have to deal with if they don’t fix or move their broken cars. On its Facebook page, the West Memphis Police Department wrote that, starting on 16. April, officers would begin the “next phase of the inoperable vehicle removal project,” going on to say:
The new fine schedule includes significantly higher fines than the ordinance originally contained which is thought to be why such low compliance was seen previously....beginning April 16th if vehicle owners have not taken action to comply we will issue them a citation which will result in a first offense fine of $250,” said Captain Joe Baker. Fines will increase from there if owners still choose not to clean the cars up and will top out at $1,000 for repeat violators.
This comes after a number of complaints by residents to the police department, which “took back over ordinance enforcement in March of this year” according to the Facebook post.
The police department says it went on a “sweep” through the city, identified 600 cars that met the “inoperable motor vehicle” criteria, and made citizens aware of the new fine and fee schedule that would be enforced soon. Fox News 13 has the text of the letters the police department has been sending to residents. It reads in part:
In the coming weeks the West Memphis Police Department will be implementing a zero tolerance policy for violation of West Memphis City Ordinance 1298. Failure to comply will result in citations and fines. Please comply with the above listed code to avoid additional action. It is the goal of the West Memphis Police Department to assist residents....For your convenience we have attached is a list of wrecker services who will remove inoperable motor vehicles at no cost to you, provided that you are able to demonstrate proof of ownership and / or present a valid title at the time of removal.
As if this weren’t intrusive enough, the city passed ordinance 2457 on 15. March of this year—an ordinance that apparently severely limits how people wrench on their own cars. It reads, in part:
Work on vehicles shall be limited to the minor repair and maintenance of vehicles...currently registered to the occupant or a member of the occupant’s family. This limitation precludes auto repair on residential premises by any person or commercial entity.
It goes on to say residents can only work on a single inoperable vehicle at any one time, and that such work must be done in an “enclosed structure” or in area out of public view unless it’s just “minor servicing,” in which case it can be done in a driveway or parking service, as long as the job doesn’t take more than 48 hours, which is further limited by the 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. restriction on wrenching hours.
Oh, and if you don’t abide by this rule, you can see fines of up to $2,500. Here’s a copy of the full ordinance
What’s crazy about this whole thing is that it’s probably safe to say that most people who have broken cars on their property don’t have a choice. If their car breaks, they may not be able to afford a mechanic to fix their vehicle, especially not immediately. And what about if they can’t afford insurance or registration and just want to store their car until they can? Are they expected to just call up one of those free tow companies and give the vehicle away?
This type of ordinance, which is not uncommon in the U.S., seems like one that could hurt low-income households, of which there appear to be many in the city of less than 30,000, whose median household income is somewhere around $30,000.
To be sure, the police department does claim it doesn’t want to issue any citations, and that it’s not looking over fences during enforcement. So if you’ve got a big fence, it seems like you’re okay. Still, this seems like an absurd rule that could make life tougher for those who already have it tough. I’ve contacted the police department for comment, and will update when I hear back.