When a neighbor hires a landscaper with a specially fabricated water-mower that pulls aquatic weeds from the base of a lake, to whom do you complain about environmental concerns?
That was a question for members of a neighborhood association on Little Bitterroot Lake a couple of years ago. After communications with several different federal and state agencies, the complainers got their answer and were referred to the man who settles a lot of property disputes in Flathead County: George Ferris.
Ferris is a soft-spoken man known for delicately handling a tough job. As the Flathead County Planning Office enforcement officer, he is tasked with making sure people follow through with building permits and cracking down on people who break community decay, flood-plain, lakeshore or zoning ordinances.
Last year he closed 179 cases and performed 471 site visits. He is responsible for monitoring a 5,000-square-mile area that is home to 61,000 people.
“Most people are extremely cooperative,” Ferris said, although he pointed out that there are a few who refuse to cooperate. Once or twice a year, the county attorney will have to charge someone with breaking ordinances, but those cases are extremely rare.
In an average day, Ferris leaves his office at the Flathead County Courthouse complex and inspects building lots to make sure folks are following their permits. A lot of the time, he’s looking at docks built on the lakeshore. People often decide to build more than they originally planned and were permitted to undertake by the county. It can cause problems with the lakeshore. In one case, someone brought in two cubic tons of sediment that wasn’t allowed.
“That leaches back into the lake,” Ferris said of why it is important for people to build within the confines of their permit. “We don’t want it polluting the lake,”
Problems are often remedied by people amending their permits or removing a section of whatever structure was created.
Other times, people will pile large amounts of sediment along the banks of a river or stream. This is not allowed by the federal government because it alters the flood plain. Without knowing it, the people who created a large dirt pile essentially break a federal law that puts the entire county at risk of not being covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the event of a flood.
“We take flood-plain violations very seriously,” Ferris said.
Sometimes Ferris has to head out quickly to handle emergency situations that arise, such as in the winter time when people ignite burn piles on frozen lakes. If the pile breaks through the ice and sinks, it pollutes the lake and creates future problems.
“All of theses things affect property values and quality of life,” Ferris said. “When we approach people, it’s kind of low-key. We don’t come on too strong. Could we get it resolved sooner? Maybe. But then more would go on over to the courthouse system which we don’t necessarily want to do. We want to have the party that we are dealing with feel that they were treated fairly. We want them to think that yes, we had a violation, but to say, ‘Thank you for treating me professionally to handle the matter.’”
Among the most touchy kinds of cases Ferris handles is enforcing community decay ordinances. The ordinances prevent people from having junky yards within sight of a public roadway.
Ferris investigates signed complaints about community decay — complaints that are sometimes the result of ongoing community squabbles that have nothing to do with actual decay concerns.
“We end up doing a little mediation to suggest how people can lower their level of hostility,” Ferris said.
The part-counselor, part-investigator, part-enforcer gig is something that Ferris’ boss thinks he handles in a just manner.
“I’ve worked with other code enforcement officials that were more aggressive than George is, sometimes to the point that they would discover suspicious activities on a piece of property where the owner was someone they didn’t like and then they were really aggressive,” Flathead County Planning and Zoning Director Mark Mussman said. “You just can’t do that. We try to treat everyone who walks in this office exactly the same and I think George does an excellent job with that in code enforcement.”
Mussman said ordinances like the ones that prevent community decay are important.
“It affects your neighbors,” Mussman said. “ You don’t have this opaque screen around your property.”
Ferris has a history in law enforcement that he says has helped him in his job as code enforcer.
He has worked as a sheriff’s deputy in several places, including Florida, where among other things he had to take a four-hour class on how to wrestle and restrain an alligator.
He also worked as an federal enforcement officer for the Cash for Clunkers program that gave people money to buy more fuel-efficient cars if they turned in their older vehicles.
Ferris was tasked with making sure that the clunkers actually ended up in the junk yard and he spent half of his time getting greasy in dirty places digging out old cars. The other half was spent in suits on expensive showroom floors, making sure everything was OK on that end of the purchase.
Ferris said he enjoys working with the public and helping people meet the rules. He encourages people to call his office.
“We’d rather have 99 people call and ask than have 99 people we had to visit,” Ferris said.
eporter Megan Strickland may be reached at 758-4459 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.