Civil penalties start at $250
County residents will have to pay a lot more if they get caught littering.
During their meeting Monday, June 20, county commissioners unanimously voted to approve the final version of the new littering ordinance. Under the new system, it’s a civil offense rather than criminal to be found littering. Additionally, residents can’t throw trash in bins they aren’t authorized to use. That includes putting trash into a neighbor’s bin. In order for a citation to be given out, there has to be evidence of the crime, county attorney Jeff Crook said.
“To be in violation, you have to have evidence it occurred,” Crook said, responding to commissioners’ concerns that someone with a grudge would call in a fake violation. He also added there is no provision for age, as a 16-year-old driver would be cited the same as a 46-year-old.
In the case of trash thrown from a vehicle, Crook said, the ordinance calls for the blame to fall on the driver.
“If the car is pulled, the driver is assumed to be the one who threw it,” Crook said.
At an earlier 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 staff members, including those already working in code enforcement, might be issued citation books in an effort to crack down on litter.
“Anyone we so designate we would make sure they have the appropriate training and common sense,” County Manager Cindy Coto said.
What doesn’t change is what qualifies as litter. Under the current policy, 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.