Penalties more than doubled under new rules
It won’t pay to get caught littering in Union County. During their Monday, May 2 meeting, county commissioners unanimously voted to make it a civil offense, rather than just criminal, to be found littering. At an earlier April 4 meeting, board members had adopted stiffer fees. 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 were previously criminal violations, which means sheriff’s deputies come out and write up residents. Concerned about clogging up the court system, commissioners had asked staff to examine if it was feasible to switch from criminal to civil penalties.
County Manager Cindy Coto responded at the May 2 meeting, saying a switch to higher civil penalties wouldn’t cause any problems.
“To date, we are unaware of any unforeseen circumstances,” Coto said, pointing out the same sheriff’s deputy that handles criminal citations would be responsible for the civil ones, so there’s not an added workload. “Since he is alread responsible for the criminal aspects, (we) didn’t see any problems.”
Coto added additional staff members, including those already working in code enforcement, might also be issued citation books in an effort to crack down on litter.
“I’m a little concerned about the idea of having a staff person stop a car or give a citation (out in the field),” commissioner Kim Rogers said.
What doesn’t change is what qualifies as litter. 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.
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 and didn’t take any steps to change that on Monday. 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.
Additionally, commissioners had 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 have reverted to $50, under such a system. That idea failed due to lack of support.
Commissioners directed staff to write up the new civil penalties ordinance, which will be brought back to commissioners at a later date for final review.