Published: 3:55 pm, Tue. Jan. 2nd, 2018Updated: 3:53 pm
The parking lot of the Eddy County Administration Complex was filled with pickup trucks well before Tuesday morning’s meeting of the county commission was scheduled to begin.
Streaming through the doors were men and women dressed against the cold in the sort of hardy attire favored by those in the farm and ranch trade. Many had never attended a commission meeting; as several would point out, the traditional 8:30 a.m. weekday start time conflicts – as it does for most – with their work. They were taking a rare day off, some to their financial detriment. They felt the matter at hand was worth the cost.
On paper, it was called O-18-92, the Eddy County Solid Waste, Nuisance and Illegal Dumping Ordinance, a proposed ordinance the stated purpose of which was to “preserve and protect the health, safety and quality of life of the inhabitants, and visitors, of Eddy County, and to preserve and improve the environmental quality of Eddy County.”
To the vast majority of those in attendance, it heralded the potential end of their very way of life.
Thus, as the meeting began, the small space inside Commission Chambers had been filled, as had the few rows of foldout chairs placed immediately outside its open doors. Concerned county residents numbering around 200-300 packed the open area outside the room, its surrounding hallways, and even the stairwell, a crowd county officials say was the largest in recent memory, if not ever.
By the time the public hearing on the ordinance was complete three-and-a-half hours later, they’d made their collective voice heard. The commission assured them of that, allowing the proposal to die by lack of motion. The four board members in attendance – Larry Wood, Stella Davis, James Walterscheid and Susan Crockett, with Jon Henry absent – all indicated had the ordinance come to a vote, their answer would have been “no.”
O-18-92 was called, primarily, a combination of two existing county ordinances – the Junkyard, and Junk and Dilapidated Structures Ordinances – already on the books. There were some key changes, however, and it’s to those the residents were most vehemently opposed.
For one, the ordinance would have limited the number of “junk vehicles” – listed as inoperable motor vehicles, scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses and others – that could be kept on a property to three or less and also placed limits on the storing of “scrap metal.” Were such items in “clear sight,” the property owner would be required to construct a “seven-foot shield” to block them from view.
The ordinance also outlined stiff penalties for violators: $300 fines or 90 days in jail per violation, per each day the violation continued to occur.
That aspect of the proposal caught not only the attention of residents but Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage, as well, who questioned the apparent fact his department would be called upon to enforce those penalties.
“You’re talking about drafting something that directs me to do something; under what authority, that’s what I want to know,” Cage said. “I’m not going to say whether I approve or disapprove of the ordinance, but I just think… well, I know… that if my office is going to be called into question to do something, I need to be included in the discussion.”
Ultimately, around 60 residents of the county approached the commission during the public hearing, with most calling the ordinance nothing more than a violation of their constitutional property rights and a clear overreach of government.
“We are free to use our property as we desire,” said Tina Kincaid of Carlsbad. “Property owners should not be required to obtain a permit or a license before they can use their own property no more than they are required to obtain a permit before they can speak freely.
“The burden should be upon those who object to the particular use of that property and (for them to) show how it violates the rights of theirs.”
Many of the residents stated that if neighbors have concerns regarding the amount of “junk” on a property, they should be allowed to resolve any disputes amicably amongst themselves without involving the authorities. They say the ordinances already in place are sufficient for extreme cases.
The residents were also of the predominant opinion that “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”
Farmers, ranchers, mechanics, and others simply working on and maintaining large acreages reminded the commission the vehicles and scrap metal on their properties are there to be put to use: vehicles for parts, pipe for repairing or constructing fences, tin for repairs to roofs or structures.
“There’s a difference between what happens in town and what happens in the county,” said Marty Posey of Hope. “If I had a house in town and my neighbor had five junk cars, and his house is just 50 feet from mine, I might be offended. But I don’t live there.”
“I lived in the city, and I moved out of the city because of all the regulations that we had to encounter,” said Blaze Campanella of Artesia. “I prefer to live in the county to get away from that, not to go to that.”
Carlsbad resident Sandi Wilkie said she viewed the ordinance’s creation as an attempt by the county to enforce a portion of previously-voted-down extra-territorial zoning (ETZ).
“This is the ETZ that we all opposed, one little piece at a time,” Wilkie said. “That’s what all these ordinances are, and you keep trying to slip them in, one little piece of the puzzle at a time, until everything we opposed as the one package of the ETZ is all in place.
“According to this ordinance, judgment on this is given to two people: code enforcement and the county manager. And I don’t trust their judgment.”
Many of those speaking said they were doing so as a fourth-, fifth- or higher-generation member of their family business; two brought their young sons with them to the table to represent a future they said the ordinance would potentially destroy.
“We’re in the oilfield, we’re in ranching, we’re in farming… my son, he does it, and he’s 3,” said an emotional Cutler Crockett of Artesia. “Think about it. That’s why we’re sitting here. What are you going to allow them to do?”
Several residents also said the ordinance’s broad language opened the door for additional interpretation and regulation, and that the county should be working to reduce ordinances rather than create more.
“How long is it going to be before this ordinance is amended to take in livestock?” asked Richie Crockett of Artesia. “Reading this thing, most of these things y’all want to take care of are already under some kind of ordinance. You’re adding more and more and more regulation.”
The commissioners ultimately agreed.
“We have ordinances, and we are ordinanced to death,” said Davis. “We are a relatively rural county. There are transgressors that do bad things out there, yes, there are, but I think for the most part, residents who live out in the county live out there for a certain way of life. Can we clean it up a little bit? Hopefully yes, but the ordinance (before the commission) I can’t live with.”
“I think the ordinances in place now take care of things,” agreed Wood.
Walterscheid said he was “amazed” with the public outpouring and impressed with the passion with which the residents expressed their concerns.
“Some of them said they don’t like public speaking, but they came out and they were very eloquent,” he said, “because it’s what they believe in, and you can sure tell it.”
Walterscheid said he too felt the ordinance was too open-ended and confusing in its definitions; he suggested there was more work to be done on the ordinance and suggested it be reviewed again by planning and development to “see if it’s truly what the county needs.”
Chairman Crockett indicated she would rather see the matter dropped entirely.
“At this time, I definitely think that the people have spoke, and I think that we do not need to move forward with this ordinance,” Crockett said. “We have the two ordinances in effect. I definitely don’t think it needs to go back to the planning and development advisory committee, either, at this time.”