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Building and Property Nuisances

This page provides an overview of building and property nuisances for local governments in Washington State, including regulatory authority and examples of local codes related to unfit/dangerous buildings, outdoor storage, vacant buildings, attractive nuisances, graffiti, and other similar topics.

It is part of MRSC's series on Nuisances: Regulation and Abatement.



Overview

Building nuisances can include structures whose appearance detracts from the neighborhood (such as properties that are not properly maintained, buildings covered with graffiti, or vacant buildings), as well as structures that present a safety issue (such as a fire-damaged building or a building that remains partially built or partially torn down).

Building code enforcement is usually a combination of complaint-based enforcement along with a programmatic approach designed to eliminate deteriorated structures. This combined approach can help reduce nuisances that impact nearby property values and attract criminal and drug trafficking activities.


Regulatory Authority

Washington cities and counties have several options for regulating abandoned, unfit, or dangerous buildings and structures. These include enforcement of specialized building or housing codes published by the International Conference of Building Officials and adoption of local nuisance provisions under various state laws.

Statutes

  • Ch. 35.80 RCW – Unfit Dwellings, Buildings and Structures - Authorizes cities and counties to adopt ordinances to regulate and abate unfit dwellings, buildings and structures. Under this statute, cities and counties can establish an improvement board or officer with powers to investigate potentially dangerous or unfit buildings. If a building is found to be unfit for human habitation or other use after investigation, notice and a public hearing, the board or officer may order the owner to repair, vacate, or demolish the building, subject to certain appeal rights.
  • Ch. 35.80A RCW – Condemnation of Blighted Property - Relates to procedures for the condemnation of certain "blighted property." Under this statute, cities and counties may acquire by condemnation buildings that meet any two of the following three conditions: (1) if a dwelling has not been occupied for a period of one year; (2) if the property constitutes a threat to the public health, safety or welfare as determined by the executive authority of the city or his designee; and (3) if the dwelling has been associated with illegal drug activity in the last year.
  • Chapter 7.100 RCW – Foreclosure and Abandonment of Residential Real Property - Nuisance Abatement - Allows local governments to declare certain residential properties to be "abandoned" and requires them to notify the mortgage holder.

Specialized Building Codes

The following codes are all published by the International Code Council. All or portions of these codes may be adopted by reference into the local city or county code.

  • International Building Code, adopted as part of the Washington State Building Code, provides general authority for cities and counties to regulate and abate dangerous buildings. In particular, see the Washington State Building Code, Section 116 regarding Unsafe Structures and Equipment.
  • Uniform Code for the Abatement of Dangerous Buildings is compatible with the International Building Code and applies to all types of buildings and structures. It provides legal steps to abate dilapidated, defective buildings that endanger life, health, property, and public safety.
  • Uniform Housing Code is comparable to the Uniform Code for the Abatement of Dangerous Buildings, but is applicable only to dwellings. It contains minimum health and safety standards by regulating the use and occupancy, location, and maintenance of all residential buildings within the jurisdiction.
  • International Property Maintenance Code addresses maintenance requirements for the interior and exterior of structures, and space requirements for determining maximum occupancy. The IPMC also contains requirements for heating and plumbing in existing workplaces, hotels, and residential occupancies, and minimum light and ventilation criteria.

Unfit or Dangerous Buildings


Unsightly, Damaged, or Partial Buildings


Property Maintenance and Unsightly Areas

The failure to maintain property directly impacts property values of adjacent property and, in the worst case, can provide an area that attracts criminal activities.

To protect a neighborhood from deterioration, a number of local governments have established property maintenance standards. There is a limit, however, on how far a jurisdiction may go in regulating unsightly areas on private property. Washington court cases, such as Lenci v. City of Seattle, 63 Wn.2d 664, 677-678 (1964), Polygon Corp. V. City of Seattle, 90 Wn.2d 59, 70 (1978), and Duckworth v. City of Bonney Lake, 91 Wn.2d 19, 30 (1978), indicate that municipal regulations may be based in part on aesthetic considerations. However, these cases suggest that there must also be public health, safety, or welfare issues present in order to justify a municipal regulation under the police power.

Some cities wrap a general nuisance ordinance in language that addresses property standards. The premise is that failure to provide minimum maintenance creates unsanitary and unsafe conditions, negatively impacts the aesthetic value of the community, and reduces property values.

To provide for more objective standards, many cities and counties adopt the International Property Maintenance Code. This code provides requirements intended to maintain a minimum level of safety, sanitation, and appearance of structures and exterior property areas.

Local governments considering property standards need to work with legal counsel to make sure that the necessary procedural requirements are included in any public nuisance or property maintenance ordinance and that staff responsible for enforcement receive the necessary training.

Examples of Property Clean-Up Programs

  • Longview NEAT Program – Neighborhood Excellence Action Team (NEAT) is a partnership between the City and neighborhoods; neighborhood volunteers plan and run a cleanup event and the City provides free drop boxes for disposal of excess trash, bulky waste, and yard debris.
  • Marysville Community Beautification Program – Provides grant funding to neighborhoods, community groups, and local businesses that want to work together to beautify their neighborhood or other areas of the community.
  • Vancouver Sparkles Award – A program that recognizes neighbors who go the extra mile to make their neighborhood special

Examples of Nuisance Code Provisions


Outdoor Storage Including Shipping Containers

Provisions related to outdoor storage of items on property vary in terms of time, purpose, and whether or not the items stored are in public view. Similar provisions appear in both highly urban and more rural settings.


Storage and Discharge of Hazardous Substances


Vacant Buildings and Property

  • Bellevue Municipal Code Ch. 9.13 – Minimum maintenance standards for vacant residences and abandoned construction sites in single-family residential districts
  • Everett Municipal Code Ch. 16.16 – Establishes minimum maintenance requirements for vacant properties in the central business district; requires registration for each vacant commercial space
  • Lynnwood Municipal Code Sec. 10.08.200(B)(9) – Definition of "nuisance" includes vacant, unused, or unoccupied buildings that have not been properly secured
  • Seattle Vacant Buildings – Includes information on city regulations for maintaining vacant buildings, vacant building options, and vacant building monitoring program
  • Spokane Municipal Code Sec. 17F.070.040 – "Boarded-up building" defined; after one year a boarded-up building becomes an unfit building
  • Yakima Municipal Code Ch. 11.48 – Minimum standards for vacant buildings; vacant buildings not maintained in compliance with these standards are declared to be a public nuisance

Attractive Nuisances

Most county and city codes include a provision that deals with "attractive nuisances" in their list of designated nuisances. This particular provision is intended to protect children from injury and death by removing conditions that attract them. The most frequently cited example is abandoned refrigerators (see chapter 9.03 RCW), but other examples include vacant properties, vacant property and building sites that are not properly secured, and the accumulation of junk which might be attractive to children for areas of play.

The first Washington case in which the attractive nuisance doctrine was involved was Ilwaco Ry. & Nav. Co. v. Hedrick, 1 Wash. 446 (1890). A lawsuit was filed against a railway company for the death of a child, caused by negligence of the company in leaving a turn-table unfastened. The plaintiff in that case was able to show that the railroad knew children were attracted to the machine and were in the habit of playing on it and that the method of securing it had in the past proved insufficient.

The Washington Supreme Court slowly evolved the limits of the attractive nuisance doctrine and in a 1940 case, Schock v. Ringling Bros., 5 Wn 2d 599 (1940), the court listed five elements that must be present to make the "attractive nuisance" doctrine applicable to a given case:

  1. The instrumentality or condition must be dangerous in itself; that is, it must be an agency which is likely to, or probably will, result in injury to those attracted by, and coming in contact with, it;
  2. It must be attractive and alluring, or enticing, to young children;
  3. The children must have been incapable, by reason of their youth, of comprehending the danger involved;
  4. The instrumentality or condition must have been left unguarded and exposed at a place where children of tender years are accustomed to resort, or where it is reasonably to be expected that they will resort, for play or amusement, or for the gratification of youthful curiosity; and
  5. It must have been reasonably practicable and feasible either to prevent access to the instrumentality of condition, or else to render it innocuous, without obstructing any reasonable purpose or use for which it was intended.

The doctrine of attractive nuisance has not changed much over the years. Two more recent cases are Ochampaugh v. Seattle, 91 Wn.2d 514 (1979) and Schneider v. Seattle, 24 Wn. App. 251 (1979).

Code Provisions


Graffiti Control

Graffiti on public and private property continues to be a problem in many jurisdictions. The following list of programs and ordinance examples from Washington State reflects the variety of approaches that jurisdictions have taken to control or regulate graffiti. Sample ordinance provisions include those that prohibit the sale and possession of aerosol paint and markers to minors, and those that require removal of graffiti within a specified time period. The latter may include removal by the perpetrator if known, or the property owner. Some of the provisions provide detailed notice and hearing procedures.

Because the property owners are also the victims of graffiti, many jurisdictions have programs that assist those owners in removing that graffiti. Some of these programs connect property owners with volunteer groups to help with removal, other provide vouchers for paint or other removal tools.

Statutes

  • RCW 9A.48.090 – Malicious mischief in the third degree - Makes acts of graffiti malicious mischief in the third degree.
  • RCW 9A.48.105 – Criminal street gang tagging and graffiti
  • RCW 4.24.190 – Action against parent for willful injury to person or property by minor - Monetary limitation - Common law liability preserved. - Imposes financial responsibility on the parents of minors involved in acts of graffiti in some circumstances.

Examples of Local Programs and Ordinances

  • Battle Ground Municipal Code Sec. 8.12.010(N) – Declares graffiti to be a public nuisance
  • Everett Graffiti Program – City program to remove publicly visible graffiti on private property; includes graffiti removal consent waiver
  • Marysville Municipal Code Ch. 6.25 – Addresses graffiti nuisances, removal by property owners, removal by city, and rewards for identification and apprehension of offenders; encourages businesses and citizens to refrain from selling or giving aerosol paints or similar supplies to any minor under 18 years old
  • Renton Municipal Code Title 6, Ch. 29 – Prohibits any person from possessing graffiti implements or applying graffiti without written permission of the owner or occupant; authorizes city to use public funds for certain graffiti removal
  • Seattle Municipal Code Ch. 10.07 – Graffiti Nuisance Code; abatement process begins with informational notice to property owner and escalates from there
  • Toppenish Municipal Code Ch. 9.84 – Prohibits sale or furnishing of aerosol paints to minors under 18 years old, as well as possession of aerosols by minors (with exception for 6 ounces or less under the immediate supervision of the minor’s parent, guardian, instructor, or employer
  • Union Gap Graffiti Removal and Deterrent Services Contract (2008) – Six-month contract for private company to remove graffiti in residential areas. Requires company to supply a 24-hour graffiti removal hotline, manage a dedicated email address and webpage for reporting, and remove graffiti within 72 hours of notice
  • Yakima Municipal Code Ch. 6.50 – Prohibits possession of graffiti implements in public facilities; prohibits possession/sale of graffiti implements to minors (with exceptions for parental supervision or with written permission of property owner/occupant); regulates display of graffiti implements in stores; addresses abatement and removal

Weeds and Nuisance Vegetation

See our page on Weeds and Other Nuisance Vegetation.


Recommended Resources

Below are selected resources that may be helpful relating to building nuisances, property maintenance, and vacant properties.

  • Center for Community Progress – National nonprofit dedicated to transforming vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties into neighborhood assets
    • The Building American Cities Toolkit™ – Addresses strategies and tools to improve land, buildings, and neighborhoods; includes elements on dealing with problem property owners, building stronger neighborhoods, reusing vacant properties, and taking control of and managing problem properties
  • The Relaxed Zoning Overlay: A Tool for Addressing the Property Vacancy Cycle, by Stephen Pantalone, Zoning Practice (September 2011, available through MRSC Library Loan) – The purpose of the relaxed zoning overlay (RZO) is to mitigate the impacts of vacant property by anticipating decline and adapting the property supply in a given community. The article introduces the RZO as a potential new tool for cities in transition and includes a suggested ordinance framework for this new type of overlay.

Last Modified: April 02, 2021