Thursday, February 29, 2024

County to beef up littering fines, authorize environmental management to write tickets

A large pile of debris at off N.C. 53 and Cape Fear Drive, just outside Burgaw, in October. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A large pile of debris at off N.C. 53 and Cape Fear Drive, just outside Burgaw, accumulated after Hurricane Florence in Pender County. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County may soon bulk up its fines for repeat litterers and grant its environmental management director the ability to issue civil fines for illegal dumping. 

The ability to fine those who illegally dump trash currently rests solely with law enforcement. County code authorizes the sheriff’s office to issue nuisance civil citations with a penalty beginning at $100, jumping to $300 for second offenders, and $500 for third-time and subsequent offenses. 

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“A county civil citation, for lack of a better word, is a parking fine,” said New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer. Though deputies have the ability to issue littering tickets, they rarely do, often resorting to verbal warnings instead, Brewer explained. 

The sheriff’s office has one environmental detective whose entire day revolves around scoping out illegal dumping and other nuisance environmental crimes (he’s basically the only one consistently writing littering tickets). 

“He’s doing a fantastic job, but there’s just way too much going on for one person,” said Joe Suleyman, the county’s environmental management director. 

Monday, New Hanover County Commissioners will consider emboldening Suleyman with the ability to issue civil penalties for repeat illegal dumping offenders. Fourth offenders and beyond could face a new $800 civil penalty –– increasing the fine amount assigned to third and beyond offenses by $300. 

He could also write tickets for a new $1,000 fine for bulk content violations. This would consist of “debris, trash, derelict structures, vehicles, boats or household or commercial items, demolition material, chemicals, or vegetation” in quantities of more than 5 cubic yards (about enough to fill half of a dump truck). 

“The problem is, the way the ordinance is originally written, there’s not much of a deterrent in there,” Suleyman explained. “When we sit down and do the math of how much does it cost us to clean this up, it’s way more than what the penalties were.”

Repeat problem areas for county environmental management staff (which processes trash and recycling off U.S. 421 for the region) include dirt roads of Carolina Beach Road and River Road. Seabreeze Road is another “favorite spot for dumping,” Suleyman said. 

“People just back in there and unload their entire garage: mattresses, washing machines, tires, clothing,” he said. “And one pile attracts other piles.” County staff encounters the illegally dumped piles on a daily basis, he said. 

Before and after hurricanes, out-of-state contractors flock, getting paid to remove household and yard debris before illegally dumping it roadside. “We’ve caught them out on River Road –– that’s their favorite spot, River Road –– just dumping it,” he said. “Because they know our debris removal contractors are going to have to go pick it up, which affects every one of us as taxpayers to get that picked up.”

Crews the public pays for will clean it up, and the very next day, “we’ll go out there and it looks like a war zone again,” Suleyman explained. 

Suleyman has to gather data and evidence on his own in order to ensure illegal dumpers get fined. He then turns over that information to the sheriff’s office, which has to complete a report and assign the detective: “It’s a lot of manpower for a hundred-dollar fine,” he said. 

According to Lt. Brewer, officers have discretion whether they want to issue a civil violation or charge someone criminally under state law for littering. He compared it to his time assisting Wrightsville Beach for the sheriff’s office in the summer, where they’d encounter a lot of public urination. Officers would lean toward civil citations, unless the person was a repeat offender or was acting particularly egregious, as criminal citations mean the officers could have to show up in court down the line and it marks the person’s record. 

If someone is, for example, drunk and being arrested for a host of other charges, officers will sometimes tack on a littering criminal charge if they throw a beer, Brewer explained.

“I’ve seen other cities that are cleaner than Wilmington, I’ve seen other cities that are dirtier than Wilmington,” Brewer said. “So I think we’re right there in the middle.” 

Brewer said he could see how authorizing the county environmental management director with the ability to write tickets could streamline the process, not requiring a deputy to get involved in each instance. “Giving them the ability to write a civil citation . . . it’s probably a good idea,” Brewer said.

The county loses out on an estimated $60,000 in tip fee revenues every year due to illegal dumping, Suleyman estimates. 

“The county residents are eating the cost of that cleanup,” he said. “So it’s just not fair.”

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