Lawsuit contends Ontario’s nuisance fines are excessive, unfair

ONTARIO – The city of Ontario’s enforcement of nuisance laws is unconstitutional, imposing “grossly disproportionate” fines that shouldn’t be allowed, an Ontario woman contends in a federal lawsuit over the city’s controversial program.

Heriberta Contreras Granados contends in her complaint filed in U.S. District Court that she had belated notices of issues with property she owned but didn’t occupy. She said she’s now blunted from selling the property – her only significant asset – because of city liens.

The city’s practice of piling up sometimes thousands of dollars on properties for weeds, junk cars and other nuisances drew sharp attention last year. Ontario Mayor Riley Hill sued the city over the program, winning a state court ruling in September that the city he presides over improperly fined him $500. The fine was overturned.

An investigation by the Malheur Enterprise found the city didn’t follow its own procedures, and more than $1 million in fines had accumulated.

Facing community heat to act, the Ontario City Council put a moratorium on collecting the fines and temporarily limited any future penalties to $100. A city committee is considering how to reshape the effort to clean up the city without imposing substantial penalties.

City Manager Adam Brown said no action would be taken on existing fines and liens until the council decides what reforms to support.

But that means owners like Contreras Granados are stuck with property they can’t sell unless they pay off the city’s liens.

Her lawsuit, filed on her behalf in early December by the Oregon Law Center, chronicles how the Fry Foods worker found herself in the city’s legal crosshairs.

The complaint described how for “several years” the city “adopted a policy of vigorously enforcing its municipal code against local homeowners for minor property infractions such as allowing too many weeds to grow or not disposing of a vehicle the city has deemed to be ‘junk.’”

The city issues notices that “are consistently vague” that don’t tell a property owner what they need to do. The city’s code enforcement officers don’t check back regularly on properties and instead the city “retroactively imposes daily fines that quickly skyrocket.”

When those fines aren’t paid, the city puts a lien on the property, which has the result of requiring the city to get its money before property can be readily sold.

“Some residents subject to Ontario’s nuisance abatement procedures owe more in property-related fines than their property is worth,” the complaint said.

The complaint said that Contreras Granados and her husband separated in 2018 and neither of them lived in the home on Southeast First Street. The complaint said she decided not to live in the house because of roof issues and that her husband allowed others to live on the property in an RV. 

The city fined her $1,000 for “debris,” $500 for “weeds/grass over 10” tall,” $750 for “iceboxes/freezers,” and $500 for “storage of vehicles and parts.” The city’s notice, however, assessed $3,950 for the violations. The city put a lien on the property for that sum in April 2020, the complaint said.

Contreras Granados sought help at the Ontario Police Department to understand the notices because she doesn’t read English and was told cleaning up the property was her responsibility, the complaint said.

She recruited relatives to clean up; the complaint doesn’t describe what cleanup was done but says “multiple” attempts were made to satisfy the city’s code enforcement officers.

In June, the city put a second lien, this one for $6,000, on the property.

“She is extremely worried about the lien because city officials told her it could cause her to lose her property,” the complaint said.

The complaint said the city’s fines and liens violated the U.S. Constitution by not allowing for due process and imposing excessive fines. The actions also violate the Oregon Constitution because of excessive fines, the complaint said.

The city has not yet filed a response to the complaint.

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