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The guessing game usually begins shortly after codes enforcement officer Audra Antonacci knocks on a Beaufort County resident's door to say the heap of trash in the yard or the broken-down car with grass growing around it needs to be removed.'
"Who called you?" the resident often asks. Usually it's a neighbor, but occasionally a frustrated wife turns in her husband.'
"You get wives that say, 'I've been trying to get my husband to clean that up for years,' " Antonacci said.'
The county's four code enforcement officers have the kind of job that's appreciated by some and despised by others. '
They respond to complaints and patrol county roads to make sure residents are complying with the county's Zoning and Development Standards, which govern everything from river buffers to campaign signs.'
"People aren't happy to see us, they think that it's their property, they pay taxes, they think they should be able to do -- to a certain extent -- whatever they want," Antonacci said Tuesday while steering her county-issued Ford Crown Victoria down Buck Island Road.'
Antonacci was headed toward a home in Grande Oaks, where a resident called the county to say a neighbor apparently was building a shed without a permit. She slowed to a near halt on the road in front of the house. Poking up over the fence was an unfinished shed.'
"Yep, there it is," Antonacci said.'
She turned around on a street in the subdivision, scanning the other houses for code violations, before stopping at the house. No one answered the door, so she left her card.'
"If they don't call me, I'll send a warning ticket," she said. "Most of the time, people do call because they're curious."'
When officers spot a code violation, they jot down the location, take digital pictures that can be used as evidence in court and track down the property owner using county databases. They issue warning tickets listing a deadline -- seven days for most offenses -- for when the property owner must be in compliance. '
They later return to see whether the owners followed through. If they haven't, they're issued a citation which orders the violators to appear in court, where a magistrate will decide on a fine. In the last year, officers have issued '
403 warnings in southern Beaufort County and 37 citations.'
"We try to work with people as much as possible," Antonacci said. "Truly, I don't want to write anybody a citation, but if I have to, I will."'
It's occasionally difficult to issue a citation, Antonacci said, because it must be hand-delivered. Officers can't do that if the property owner lives out of state. She said the county's attorney is working on making legal changes that would allow a different delivery method.'
The county spends about $266,000 a year to run the codes enforcement division, said building codes director Arthur Cummings, who oversees the division. In 2005, the County Council called for increased enforcement, Cummings said, and it increased the budget so two more officers could be hired.'
"We've seen a lot of the junk vehicles and trash and litter and dilapidated structures being taken down and corrected since the code enforcement officers started aggressively enforcing the ordinance," he said.'
Already, Antonacci is noticing fewer signs in the county's rights of way, one of the most common violations. Whenever she sees an improperly placed sign, she pulls over, plucks it out of the ground and puts it in her trunk. It will be impounded at the Public Works office for 10 days before being pitched.'
Last week, she picked up a "For Sale by Owner" sign on Lakeview Court. The owner is Barbara Willis who, when reached a few days later, said she hadn't noticed the sign was missing.'
"That disturbs me that they would just come and take my sign," Willis said. "My phone number is on there; they could just call me and said, 'Hey, you need to move your sign or we're going to confiscate it.' "'
The sign can be recovered though -- as long as it's within the 10-day period and the owner pays a fee of $1 per square foot.'
"The word is out now," Antonacci said. "The majority of people know signs can't be in the right of way, but some people don't care -- they'll take the chance."