One man’s trash …

County increases littering fines

by Brian Carlton

County residents will have to pay a lot more if they get caught littering.

During their meeting Monday, April 4, county commissioners voted to significantly increase the penalties for littering, both on someone’s own property and out in public. The previous ordinance called for a $50 citation. Now residents will have to pay $250 for the first violation, $500 for the second and $1,000 for any additional citations. Those citations are criminal violations, which means sheriff’s deputies come out and write up residents.

“Littering has become a problem,” County Commissioner Todd Johnson, who introduced the proposal, said. “I think this increase would serve as a deterrent. I believe our current fine is antiquated.”

Under the current policy, which has been in place since 1981, no one can store material deemed as solid waste on their property for more than seven days. That waste can only be stored in a container that is rust resistant, water tight and easily cleaned, with a cover in place. Any other way of storing waste, including leaving it lying around the property, is a violation and would cause the owner to face at least the $250 fine. Leaving items outside is specifically highlighted in the ordinance, which states no waste can be left in a place accessible to children.

“This does apply to the owner’s property,” county attorney Jeff Crook said. “That currently is regulated by the county and has been since 1981.”

The fees also increase if the garbage is not removed once a citation is issued. If an owner gets a citation and then leaves the trash out for another seven days, the county can come back and charge a second fine, this time for $500 for the same piece of garbage.

The question is what exactly is defined as littering. Union County doesn’t define the term in any of its ordinances. In such cases, the county has to follow the state’s definition of the term. North Carolina defines litter as “any garbage, rubbish, trash, refuse, can, bottle, box, container, wrapper, paper, paper product, tire, appliance, mechanical equipment or part,” according to General Statute 14-399. Also included is any broken down farm machinery, vehicle or dead animal.

That means if someone used an old bicycle as a flower pot, their neighbor could call the county and report them for littering.

That last part concerned some commissioners, who questioned if fear of being caught would just lead to more problems.

“You’ve got people when times get tough, they get creative,” Commissioner Tracy Kuehler said. “My fear is that may (create a problem).”

Commissioner Kim Rogers also asked if the county wasn’t just adding more work for its employees.

“I support this in concept,” Rogers said. “(But) it’s always been a staffing issue. We’re adding to the workload.”

Commissioners approved the increased fines, but asked staff members to research if it would be easier to switch from the current criminal penalty to a civil fine. That way, it wouldn’t tie up the court system. Additionally, commissioners asked for research into the difficulty of creating two types of fines, one for littering in public and another for littering on private land. The proposed private fees would revert to $50, under such a system.

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