Late this summer, the city's defense of the public space will become a fine thing.
By then, the Department of Public Works expects to begin enforcement of the Litter Control Administration Act of 1985, which relies on a system of fines to keep the city clean.
The law empowers the city to issue penalties and liens, and to seize property when they are not paid.
The law, which the City Council passed in January, is designed to keep public spaces clean and to minimize health hazards, according to David Watson, legislative assistant to council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6). He said Winter "wants to clean up Washington, voluntarily or otherwise."
The law establishes an administrative law court and enables public works inspectors to issue tickets for violations. Until now, offenses such as littering and rat harborage have been settled in D.C. Superior Court.
Because the littering problem is less serious than armed robbery or auto theft, violators rarely have been prosecuted and could operate with impunity.
Regulations for enforcement of the law have been proposed by the city's Public Works Department. After the corporation counsel and City Council review the regulations and they are published in the D.C. Register, the law's enforcement will begin, said Leslie Hotaling of the Public Space Administration.
According to Hotaling, fines, which could range from $25 to $300, will be levied by public works employes currently charged with overseeing trash collection. Hotaling said that the city will have two hearing examiners.
"We are in the process of a major mailing" to alert residents to the law before it takes effect, Hotaling said. "We want them to be our eyes on the street."
Residents will be able to call the Public Works Department to point out trouble spots.
Proposed general violations include littering, posting notices on city property, illegal dumping, maintaining hazardous vacant lots and failing to remove animal excrement. Violations on private property would include overgrowth of trees and bushes onto public space, improper disposal of containers that might trap children, improper storage of solid waste and conditions that attract rats.
Watson expects the law to force cleanups by some city residents who create health hazards because they have "no concept of sanitation."
"In some of the wards where people have big yards, there are six or seven cars" rotting and providing a home for snakes, rats and other animals, Watson said.
Under proposed procedures, inspectors would have to obtain an administrative warrant to enter and inspect private property. However, they could issue tickets for violations visible from outside the property.
After being issued a ticket, a resident would have 15 days in which to pay the fine or seek a hearing to oppose it. The fine would double if the resident ignored the ticket.
When paying the fine, the violator would have to certify that the problem had been cleared up. If it had not, the city could do the work and charge the property owner up to twice the cost.
If owner did not pay, the city could impose a lien on the land or the building. That lien would have priority over other liens except for unpaid tax, water and sewer charges.
If any costs remained unpaid after two years, the property could be sold to repay the city.
The new law consolidates many old and fragmented regulations related to public space maintenance. While researching previous laws to prepare the litter act, Watson found records from the 1880s prohibiting the disposal of trash, litter, handbills and dog droppings on public space.
He said he also found regulations under the purview of "agencies that don't exist" in a reorganized District government. This is the third administrative court established in the District. In 1979, the city established a traffic court to settle ticket disputes, which had previously been handled through Superior Court. Last year, the traffic court heard nearly 100,000 cases.
The Civil Infractions Act, scheduled to go into effect this year under the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, is expected to generate 440,000 fines and $10 million in revenue annually.
Hotaling said that fines under the litter act may bring in $500,000 annually but that "if it doesn't bring in a dime and I get the city cleaned up, I'll be more than happy."
Hotaling added, "I hope that by next year's spring cleaning, we can clean up the city and hold [residents] responsible in full force."