It’s about community pride.

It’s about being neighborly.

It’s about not leaving an unusable washing machine out on your front stoop.

“It” is the perceived need for property maintenance throughout Maquoketa, according to City Manager Gerald Smith and Councilwoman Erica Barker.

The city, with help from East Central Intergovernmental Association, hosted a public nuisance abatement symposium at the Maquoketa Art Experience last week to open public discourse on that issue. More than two dozen city government officials from surrounding towns attended, listening to officials from Burlington and Columbus Junction speak about the innovative ways they are dealing with property issues.

It’s not a new concept, Smith said. 

“Any growing, developing community will have these property maintenance rules in place,” he said. 

He said the meeting was the next step in a process to gauge the importance of property maintenance — residential and commercial — to Maquoketa residents. If the issue is important enough, it might warrant hiring a full-time inspector to create a maintenance plan and follow through with its enforcement, he said. 

“We want to have a plan in place to help people be a good neighbor,” Smith said. “We need to take a balanced approach — not always the stick but the carrot.”

The issue

The need for property maintenance became apparent to Smith when he first drove into Maquoketa more than a year ago. He drove on an “entryway corridor” to the city and saw a house with a washing machine on the stoop. 

The next few months “I drove past again and again and it was still there,” Smith said. “I finally stopped and asked [the residents] about it. The machine went away quickly.”

But it’s not an isolated incident, Barker said.

“I’ll bring people to town and there are certain areas here that I avoid because of how they look,” she said.

“We’re not saying homeowners have to have perfect landscaping and paint jobs,” Barker said, “but [their property] should be clean, free from clutter, pleasing to look at.”

Many years ago, Maquoketa paid a full-time property maintenance inspector to ensure buildings looked presentable and were safe, grass was mowed, junk was cleaned up, etc. 

After the inspector quit, maintenance enforcement passed to the police and public works departments, Smith said.

“The police department’s priority is the safety and welfare of its residents,” Smith explained, adding that property nuisances then become a lower priority. “And rightly so. I’d rather have [officers] out chasing the bad guys.”

But property maintenance remained a priority for many of the Maquoketa residents who earlier this year completed a quality-of-life survey from the city’s Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee. 

“A lot of people said they want more property maintenance,” Smith said. “Now we’re starting the public conversation. We need to know the wishes of the community, get a sense of where the public is, if they’re on board, what they want to see in town, and how we can do that.”

That answer might be a full-time property maintenance inspector who can balance a polite demeanor with a firm grip of authority, Barker said. If that’s the direction residents and Maquoketa City Council want to go, Smith will find the funds to pay for it, he said.

How others do it

Mallory Smith, one of the symposium speakers, is the community development director for Columbus Junction, a southeast Iowa town of about 1,900 residents.

She said Maquoketa should have strong, enforceable ordinances and definitions pertaining to nuisances. In her town, ordinances relate to vehicles in yards, building, signs, lawns, noise, garbage, sidewalks, etc. 

“You have to be attractive,” Mallory said. “It’s a competitive time … and we’re trying to maintain and grow population.” 

She gave some examples:

ν Columbus Junction pays volunteer groups $200 to routinely care for city parks spring through fall. Clean, groomed parks attract families, Mallory said.

ν The city holds Keep Columbus Beautiful days in the spring and fall. These organized citywide cleanup days foster city pride — and keep the town looking good, she noted. 

Maquoketa’s Hometown Pride Committee held its first such cleanup day last spring, with more than 50 volunteers working around town in parks and ball diamonds.

ν Mallory said her city — council, city staff, police — work together to mitigate property maintenance issues.

ν She said in such a small town like Columbus Junction, you have to treat everybody the same, as though you don’t know their last name. 

Charlie Nichols, former planning director for Burlington, addressed property issues in a town that has lost about 20 percent of its population in the last 40 years. About 70 percent of Burlington’s houses were built before 1970, “and that leads to some real challenging housing conditions,” he said.

Burlington had to change gears from being reactive to proactive, Nichols explained. The city had to find ways to become more efficient in its work, identifying the biggest complaints and working more expeditiously to mitigate those problems, the largest of which was tall grass.

The city also acquired from the county nuisance properties that failed to be sold at public auction. Those properties reverted to the county. For little more than the cost of recorder’s fees, the city took ownership of the property then gave it to a neighbor in exchange for maintenance.

Burlington also offers a healthy neighborhood “carrot,” Nichols said. Neighbors are encouraged to work together to improve their properties, and when they do, they may qualify for grants of up to $1,000 per person for exterior work — porch work, painting, siding, exterior lights, landscaping, etc.

Burlington expected two applications, but received 40 the first year. 

“They were small, positive investments” in the area, Nichols said.

Next steps

Smith said he recommends focusing property improvements on the city’s “entryway corridors” such as Summit, Western, Platt and Main streets. 

“We’re trying to bring in new housing stock, new residents, new families. This is a step to improving our aesthetic image.”

He said the city’s property maintenance board would have to define the “carrot,” or benefit, of compliance — maybe a 70/30 cost-share program for building improvements, maybe temporary property tax abatement; the options are open.

“It’s not about solely does it look nice, but we want people to take pride in the community,” said Barker, noting there is “definitely a need” for a full-time inspector.

But implementing a comprehensive property maintenance program doesn’t happen overnight, Smith said.

“The community has to have patience,” Barker said.

The property maintenance board will reconvene within the next month or so and set a date for a community forum (much like the one regarding vicious animals and fireworks). Residents will be invited to share their thoughts on property maintenance in town and the standards they want to see.

Smith said he hopes the city has a firm plan in place by the next budget cycle.