CEDAR RAPIDS — A city-owned “junk yard” set among homes and businesses in the Time Check neighborhood — a violation of the city’s own rules — is being cleaned up days after The Gazette questioned the space that has been a repository for an assortment of items — broken-down vehicles, heavy machinery, sewer plugs and concrete barriers — for at least four years.
The cleanup comes 10 weeks after a complaint of “public nuisance posing safety and health hazards” arrived from a citizen, and after a bubbling frustration among neighbors about what they viewed as an “eyesore” marking the entryway to their neighborhood, one facing a number of other issues as it continues to fight back from the 2008 flood.
“It’s not an industrial area, it’s a neighborhood,” said Daniel Miller, 46, who’s irritation boiled over upon receiving a Jan. 2 complaint about items stored outside his residence on Hillside Drive NW. “That’s the first thing people see when they come into our neighborhood. They need to take the (flood) barriers and concrete cylinders, and put it somewhere safe where kids can’t climb on it. We’d get massive fines. Why are they any different?”
Miller took the language from the complaint against him, which gave him a week to comply, used it to draft his own violation notice against the city and sent it to City Manager Jeff Pomeranz on Jan. 5. It’s the only formal complaint the city has received, officials said.
The complaint was forwarded to the Building Services Department. Three days later, a city zoning inspector sent a formal violation notice to the city manager’s office advising that city properties at 300 F Ave. NW and 222 Third St. NW were violating multiple aspects of the zoning code. Action must be taken by Feb. 10, it said.
“All inoperable vehicles, junk and debris, and material and equipment currently openly stored on the properties listed above are required to be relocated to a completely enclosed structure or removed from the premises,” Zoning Inspector Amra Watkins wrote on Jan. 8.
Kevin Ciabatti, director of building services, said the city is holding itself accountable as it would others.
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“This is the same letter we would issue for any other offense,” he said in an emailed statement. “We are following the same procedure ourselves.”
However, the February deadline passed and the junk remained. Fines are not assessed until after three notices without progress, city officials said.
After receiving questions Monday from a reader, The Gazette began asking the city whether the storage areas were a violation. Then crews arrived on Wednesday and Thursday to begin cleaning up the asphalt lot surrounded by chain link fence at 300 F Ave. NW near Rumors Bar and Grill and Cedar River Landing.
Some of the vehicles and equipment had been sold, and other vehicles were being moved to the City Services Center. Officials were still working to identify alternative sites for flood control material. Work had not begun as of Thursday to clean up the second storage yard at 222 Third St. NW.
Before 2013, the F Avenue lot was an active transit operations site and then became a storage yard, in part for old fleet vehicles being auctioned off on the “GovDeals” website. The Third Street site, which housed the central fire station until demolition in 2013 due to the 2008 flood, turned into storage during the 2016 flood fight because equipment needed to be close by, said Sandi Fowler, assistant city manager. That site includes folded up flood barriers, stacked concrete cylinders and concrete boxes.
The two locations are seen as vital for staging during construction of the future flood control system, and while they will be cleaned up, it may be necessary to use them again in the future, Fowler said.
Ciabatti’s department has been working with the non-compliant departments — fleet services and public works — on a plan to clear the items.
“All departments have committed to removing the items by this summer at the latest,” Ciabatti said. “An exact time frame is somewhat dependent on how quickly an alternate site can be identified.”
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Neighbors, though, saw the property as at best an unsightly, growing stockpile and at worst a public safety hazard.
Residents got fed up receiving violation notices about improper storage on their property while the city had its own junk yard.
“I get silly notices from them all the time, so I can see why people push back against them,” said Kurtis Hartsock, who owns a three-unit apartment building within eyesight of the F Avenue stockpile. “The city says you need to fix your house up to a certain standard, but the city has its junk yard right there. It’s an eyesore. They are being huge hypocrites.”
The Northwest Neighborhood Association has been active in reporting residents with unkempt properties as its tries to entice development in the neighborhood. But the city needs to do its part as well, said Al Pierson, association president.
“As we start to see development in the neighborhood, we want to get stuff like this cleaned up and make it look better because it looks like crap,” Pierson said.
City Council member Marty Hoeger also joined the chorus calling for the site to be cleaned up.
“We need to clean that up,” Hoeger said. “We have to figure out what to do with it. I don’t think a neighborhood is a place to do that.”
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