This page covers topics related to code enforcement for local governments in Washington State, with an emphasis on nuisances and methods of enforcement and including examples of local code provisions and forms.
It is part of MRSC's series on Nuisances: Regulation and Abatement.
Some jurisdictions define all code violations as nuisances. Others select certain code section violations as nuisances to be enforced under a general code enforcement provision. The illustrations on this page are principally those of jurisdictions with general code enforcement provisions that include voluntary compliance, civil infractions, abatement proceedings, and summary abatement. Provisions are also included for dealing with chronic nuisance properties.
Nuisance abatement is a human problem. It is the people who create the nuisance that are the problem, not the nuisance itself. Local officials need to keep in mind that the persons creating a nuisance may have mental problems; many have little money.
When the method of abatement is chosen, the circumstance of the person creating the nuisance should be taken into consideration. Humane treatment is a moral imperative. Other government agencies may be of assistance. People are all individuals and remedies must be tailored to the individual. Experience and judgment are the only guides. People can be stubborn. Sane, but stubborn people are often quite receptive to a citation. The reality of fines, jail and attorney fees are a wake up call. Complicated people seem better dealt with in Superior Court.
Most code enforcement programs are complaint-driven. Complaints result in an inspection and a warning letter to the violator, followed by a notice of citation if action to correct the violation have not been taken by the property owner. This is followed by official abatement proceedings if the violator still has not take care of the problem within a specified period of time. As an alternative to abatement, some cities use neighborhood mediation centers and voluntary agreements. Except for situations of imminent or immediate danger, the enforcement of nuisance provisions is a policy issue dependent on the level of service a community can provide with available resources.
Several communities have developed proactive code enforcement programs. Others only deal with nuisances when they become a serious health or safety problem. Many local governments simply do not have adequate funding to make code enforcement a priority. The courts have recognized that governments generally do not have sufficient resources to hire staff to seek out violations of all regulations. It is common practice for cities and counties to enforce zoning ordinances, animal control, and nuisance ordinances on a complaint-only basis. See Frame Factory v. Ecology, 21 Wn.App 50, 57 (1978).
If disputes between neighbors over nuisance-related items can be resolved through alternative methods such as mediation, the local government does not have to step in with a formal complaint or remediation process.
Many jurisdictions have established dispute resolution centers under chapter 7.75 RCW. For more information, and to see a list of all dispute resolution centers in the state, see Resolution Washington or the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts Washington State Dispute Resolution Centers page.
If the local government must step in, the most desirable course of action is to obtain the voluntary cooperation of the public in seeking the abatement of nuisances. A number of jurisdictions have included voluntary agreements in their nuisance provisions. If voluntary compliance is not forthcoming, the next step may be to issue a citation. Issuing a citation for an infraction (civil offense) or misdemeanor (criminal offense) will often rectify even the worst problem. Citations are most effective when there are clear violations of particular ordinances or the conduct of the violator is patently outrageous.
Many jurisdictions have decriminalized nuisance provisions and are using a civil infraction system. In 1987 the legislature established a civil infraction system codified as Ch. 7.80 RCW to allow minor offenses to be decriminalized and to receive a civil fine or infraction. Infractions are defined as a non criminal violation of a local ordinance. The civil infraction system is patterned after the traffic infraction system adopted in 1981. The statute authorizes cities and counties to create civil infractions enforceable in the municipal or district court.
Civil infractions are initiated by the issuance, service, and filing of a notice of civil infraction issued by a person authorized to enforce ordinance provisions. The citing officer can be a law enforcement officer or other official authorized by law to issue notices. Jurisdictions have variations on the process used to obtain compliance before citations are issued. Many jurisdictions issue some sort of warning notice with a deadline for compliance before a notice of infraction.
When voluntary compliance and administrative proceedings do not solve the problem, it may be necessary to go to superior court and obtain a warrant of abatement. The warrant authorizes the jurisdiction to enter onto private property, abate the nuisance, and hold the property owner responsible for all of the abatement costs.
If there have been earlier administrative proceedings and there is a clear record that due process has been followed, a petition for a warrant of abatement may be handled expeditiously, particularly when the property owner chooses not to respond to the superior court filing. A civil nuisance abatement case brought in superior court often involves complex factual or legal issues, a large parcel of property (or several properties), or a violator whose attitudes or, in some cases, mental fitness, make it unlikely that the nuisance situation can be resolved without a warrant of abatement. One advantage of court action is that the court discovery rules will allow access to the perpetrator's premises.
Summary abatement involves the actual removal of conditions constituting a nuisance by administrative officials without resorting to judicial proceedings. Summary abatement may or may not be specifically authorized by a jurisdiction's ordinance. Sometimes a situation is so dangerous that it should be repaired or eliminated immediately. Open wells, discharges of sewage, abandoned refrigerators and similar types of nuisances are extreme hazards especially in populated areas. If the owner will not fix them upon request or cannot be found, the local government should take it upon itself to make the correction and decide later who should pay.
There is some potential liability exposure for jurisdictions that initiate summary abatement procedures. As a practical matter, the jurisdiction should protect itself by assembling evidence, such as photographs, to support its findings that an emergency exists. If an action were brought against the city or county, and the court determined that the condition abated did not in fact constitute a fire or health hazard, or a nuisance, the city would probably be liable for damages sustained by the property owner.
Administrative enforcement refers to the establishment of a non-judicial hearing and decision-making process for nuisance abatement. An administrative hearing provides the opportunity for property owners to present their side. These proceedings are much less time-consuming and expensive than a full court adjudication. However, because nuisance enforcement and abatement deal with property rights, the process must include a right to appeal any final administrative decision to district or superior court. The hope is that an administrative decision will satisfactorily resolve the issue without an appeal to superior court. If it is clear from the outset that a property owner wants to contest an administrative nuisance action, regardless of cost, it might be wise to initiate the enforcement action through court proceedings.
Sometimes an administrative process will consist of a hearing before an individual or board, followed by an administrative appeal to another board, and then an appeal to district or superior court. If the problem can be resolved through an administrative process (without a judicial appeal) it is generally simpler, faster, and less costly than initiating the enforcement action in court. An example of a full administrative enforcement process, including a level of administrative appeal prior to superior court appeal, is Ch. 35.80 RCW, which establishes a process for dealing with unfit dwellings, buildings, and structures. The key to any administrative nuisance abatement ordinance is a clear and detailed definition of what constitutes a nuisance. Clear and unambiguous administrative procedures must give all those affected an opportunity to have decisions reviewed before any abatement action is taken. See Memphis Light Gas & Water v. Craft, 436 U.S. 1 (1978).
Consensual searches are not unreasonable and do not require a warrant. However, it is now advised that a warrant be obtained to enter property when permission is not obtained. In a Ninth Circuit Court case involving the City of Santa Ana, Connor v. Santa Ana, 897 F.2d 1487 (9th Cir. 1990), the court held that a warrant was required prior to entering property to inspect for a nuisance violation. This was based on the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution due process clause.
A warrant may not be needed for a nuisance that is located in plain view, such as in an open front yard. This is the holding in Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case, Schneider v. County of San Diego, 28 F.3d 89 (9th Cir.1994). In this case the court addressed the legality of the county abating a nuisance on private property, after all the proper notices had been given to the property owner. The court recognized an exception in regard to searches on private property where the activity takes place in open fields, where there is no recognized expectation of privacy.
In City of Pasco v. Shaw, 161 Wn.2d 450 (2007), to address a problem with the poor conditions of some rental units within the city, the city council passed an ordinance requiring landlords, to be licensed by the city, have inspections made of their rental units, and furnish the city with certificates of inspectors certify that their units met applicable building codes. A challenge was brought, arguing that the required inspections constituted improper searches and that the inspection ordinance was too vague to be enforceable. On appeal, the court disagreed.
General authority for cities and towns: Any city or town that exercises its authority to abate nuisances may levy a special assessment against the property for the expense of abatement. See RCW 35A.21.405 for code cities and RCW 35.21.955 for all other cities and towns. (Counties do not have the same general authority.)
This special assessment constitutes a lien against the property and is binding on successors in title from the date the lien is recorded with the county. Up to $2,000 of the recorded lien is of equal rank with state, county, and municipal taxes. The city or town may contract with the county treasurer to collect the special assessment through the property tax collection process in accordance with RCW 84.56.035.
In cases where the nuisance threatens health or safety, the city or town must provide prior notice to the property owner by regular mail that an abatement is pending and that a special assessment may be levied on the property for the expense of abatement. In all other cases, the city or town must notify both the property owner and any identifiable mortgage holder.
See the following example:
- Spokane Valley Letter to County Treasurer Certifying Unpaid Nuisance Abatement Expenses (2023) – Sample letter from city finance director to county treasurer certifying assessment of up to $2,000 for unpaid nuisance abatement expenses and requesting assessment to be collected as part of general taxes on specified parcel
Unfit dwellings, buildings, and structures: Any city, town, or county that has adopted ordinances relating to unfit dwellings, buildings, and structures under chapter 35.80 RCW may recover the costs incurred for abating such nuisances. See RCW 35.80.030.
Any unpaid abatement costs – including eligible tenant relocation assistance payments and any accrued penalties and interest – must be assessed against the property. The entire amount of the assessment constitutes a lien against the property of equal rank with state, county, and municipal taxes and must be entered onto the general tax rolls against the property for collection.
If the unfit structure or premises is demolished or removed, the materials of the structure or premises must be sold, if possible, according to the procedures set by ordinance, and the proceeds must be credited against the cost of removal or demolition. Any proceeds exceeding the abatement costs, if any, must be paid to the entitled parties as determined by the local improvement board or officer.
Other nuisance abatement costs: For other nuisance abatement costs not listed above, a municipality would have to get a court judgment and record a lien against the property. The lien does not have equal priority to state, county, or municipal tax liens. See generally, City of Tacoma v. Pierce Cnty., 79 Wash. 2d 361, 485 P.2d 454 (1971).
The ordinance provisions and webpage links listed below provide illustrations of the methods used for code enforcement discussed above. Most of the code enforcement provisions illustrated here apply to several types of regulations including nuisances, building codes, environment, and zoning.
- Burien Municipal Code Ch. 1.15 – Code Enforcement - Covers service of documents, violations, infractions, voluntary correction, stop work order, notice of civil violation, response to notice of civil violation, scheduling of hearing to contest or mitigate – Correction prior to hearing, contested hearing – Procedure, mitigation hearing – Covers Procedure, decision of hearing examiner, failure to appear – default order, judicial review, recovery of penalties and costs, abatement, and right of entry.
- Covington Municipal Code Ch. 1.30 – Civil Code Enforcement - Covers voluntary correction agreement, notice of civil infraction, administrative notice, stop work order, abatement, collection of penalties, lien - uses a hearing examiner
- Everett Code Enforcement – Includes complaint form, FAQs, and link to violations hearing examiner
- Municipal Code Ch. 1.20 – Code Enforcement
- Longview Code Compliance – Includes links to citizen complaint process, top 10 code violations and how to avoid them, and other forms and documents
- Municipal Code Ch. 1.33 – Code Compliance - Provides extensive detailed procedures
- Monroe Code Enforcement
- Municipal Code Sec. 6.04.060 -.080 – Abatement of a Public Nuisance (includes form) Costs of Abatement, and Penalty
- Pasco Code Enforcement – Provides links to Code Enforcement Board, Municipal Code, common code violations, and Good Neighbor Handbook
- Municipal Code Ch. 1.05 – Civil Infractions - Violations and Procedures - Provisions cover: Voluntary correction agreement: contents, administrative review of compliance, extension-modification, abatement, collection of costs; Notice of civil violation: issuance, content, service of notice, extension, monetary penalties; hearing before code enforcement board: prior correction of violation, procedures, decision, penalties, appeal to Superior Court; summary abatement; recovery of costs
- Municipal Code Ch. 1.45 – Code Enforcement Board
- Prosser Code Enforcement
- Wenatchee Code Enforcement – Includes online complaint form, link to Code Enforcement Board, and FAQs
- Vancouver Municipal Code Title 22 – Uniform Enforcement Code - Includes correction notice and required elements, notice of civil violation and order. order to revoke permit, service of notice of civil violation and order to revoke Permit. Summary abatement, appeals to the hearing examiner, and appeals to superior court
- Clallam County Code Title 20 – Code Compliance - General provisions cover: enforcement authority and administration, conference, guidelines regarding responses to potential violations, investigating potential violations, enforcing civil code violations, Service of citation, notice and order, and stop work order, right of entry and warrants, certificate of correction, limitation of liability, denial of permits. Other provisions: voluntary compliance agreements, citations, notice and orders, stop work orders, penalties schedule, appeals, and liens
- Clark County Code Title 32 – Enforcement - General provisions cover: administration, declaration of intent, right of entry, misdemeanor penalty, civil penalty, citation, abatement, additional enforcement, special investigation. Notices and orders of the director include: commencement of proceedings, notice and order, method of service, appeals, final order, supplemental notice and order, enforcement of a final order, and settlement of civil penalty claims. Other provisions include: suspension and revocation of permits, recovery of civil penalty and cost of abatement
- Kittitas County Code Title 18 – Code Enforcement - Provisions include: Order to correct violation: contents, service, extension of time, repeat offense; Notice of violation and abatement: notice, notice of appeal, notice of hearing, hearing, order of hearing examiner, cooperative abatement agreements, cost recovery, special assessment; Notice of infraction: contents, service filing, determination, notice of lien, procedure; Failure to comply; Infraction hearings: contested hearing, mitigation hearing; and penalties
- Lewis County
- County Code Ch. 1.20 – General Penalty and Fines, Civil Penalty and Notices of Violation - Civil enforcement procedures includes: Enforcement, violations - investigations - evidence, notice of infraction contents, filing, response, notice of Failure to Sign, Appear, or Satisfy Penalty, representation by attorney, hearing procedure, explanation of mitigating circumstances, monetary penalties - restitution, court order, and costs and attorney fees
- County Code Ch. 1.22 – Abatement of Public Nuisances - Covers summary abatement, recovery of costs and expenses, interference, lien - authorized, removal of evicted personal property and/or solid waste placed onto public access
Chronic Nuisance Property Provisions
- Des Moines
- Municipal Code Ch. 5.60 – Overnight Lodging - Provides additional requirements designed to deter crime in order to obtain or maintain its business license endorsement. The calls for service and crime statistics for each hotel and motel will be compiled for a 12-month period ending June 30th of each calendar year.
- Municipal Code Ch. 5.64 – Rental Housing - Requires crime free endorsement and provides for every police service call involving gang, drug or vice related activities or any other serious and significant criminal activity as determined by the chief of police, the owner and tenant of the rental unit requiring the police service call shall be assessed, jointly and severally, the actual costs of the police service call or $50.00, whichever amount is greater
- Everett Municipal Code Ch. 9.64 – Chronic Nuisance Properties - Includes in definition of chronic nuisance properties, nuisance activity on property within 200 feet of nuisance property that involve person in charge of property or associated with person in charge of property.
- Lakewood Municipal Code Ch. 5.60 – Establishes a rental housing licensing and inspection program to prevent and correct conditions in residential rental units
- Seattle Municipal Code Ch. 10.09 – Chronic Nuisance Properties - Chronic nuisance property includes 3 nuisance activities within six months or seven nuisance activity within 12-month period. Also includes upon a request for execution of a search warrant, has been the subject of a determination by a court two or more times within a twelve-month period that probable cause exists that illegal possession, manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance or related offenses as defined in RCW Chapter 69.50 has occurred on the property.
- SeaTac Ordinance No. 16-1017 – Amends section 5.05.180 of the SeaTac Municipal Code to include business license suspension or revocation for chronic nuisance properties.
- Spokane Municipal Code Ch. 10.08A – Chronic Nuisance Properties
- Tacoma Municipal Code Title 8 – see Ch. 8.30A - Chronic Public Nuisance
- Union Gap Municipal Code Ch. 8.21 – Chronic Nuisance Properties - Includes same definition as Seattle provisions re Ch. 69.50 RCW
Investigation Request Forms
- Chelan Code Violation Case Request Form (2018)
- Ellensburg Code Enforcement Investigation Request (2013)
- Kennewick Code Enforcement Complaint Form (2022)
- Kittitas County Code Enforcement Complaint Form (2022)
- Marysville Online Code Violation Reporting Form
- Spokane Code Enforcement Complaint Form (2020)
- Common Code Questions – Outlines types of code violations and the process for filing a complaint
- Yakima County Online Code Enforcement Complaint Form
Abatement Notices & Agreements
- Notice of Inspection (2023) – Notice of inspection for code enforcement officer to post, mail, or hand-deliver. Includes alleged violation(s), code enforcement officer’s observations, and any follow-up actions requested, as well as declaration of mailing and inspection photo form
- Notice of Civil Violation (2023) – Notice of civil violation issued by code enforcement officer. Includes list of violations or nuisances, required corrective action, date for compliance, penalties, and right to appeal. Also includes follow-up letter in case of failure to respond
- Notice of Condemnation (2023) – Sample notice of condemnation issued by code enforcement officer for violations or nuisances rendering structure unfit for human occupancy under RCW 59.18.115. Also includes landlord-tenant inspection report and subsequent order of abatement
- Voluntary Correction Agreement (2023) – Voluntary correction agreement between city and property owner to resolve code violation(s)
- Corrective Action Notice (2023) – Informing recipient of violation(s) of municipal code and providing opportunity to voluntarily correct the violation(s) prior to city taking further enforcement actions
- Notice of Violation and Order to Correct (2023) – Informing recipient of violation(s) of municipal code and requiring corrective action; establishes civil penalty of $250 per day for noncompliance
- Voluntary Compliance Agreement (2023) – Agreement between city and property owner; property owner acknowledges code violation(s) and agrees to binding compliance schedule as an alternative to formal code enforcement proceedings and/or abatement. Includes penalties for noncompliance
Stop Work Orders
- Bellevue Stop Work Order (2013) – Requires all work on premises to stop until code violations have been corrected. Failure to comply may result in penalties up to $500 per day.
- Bonney Lake Stop Work Order (2018) – Requires work on project to stop due to code violations.
- Blaine Stop Work Order (2019) – Requires all work and/or activities on property or premises to stop until required permits are obtained and violations corrected. Will be accompanied by notice of civil violation.
- Everett Stop Work Order (2023) – Requires all or portions of project to be suspended due to code violations until violations are resolved; failure to comply constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by fines or imprisonment.