NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The City of New Orleans mailed thousands of code enforcement violation notices this summer, but many of those complaints date back two and three years, to 2013 and 2014. A New Orleans East property owner was in that number.
Tucked away along the lake and Hayne Blvd., under beautiful oaks and Spanish moss, thousands of area brides and grooms have said 'I do' on the grounds of Southern Oaks Plantation.
"When you show up here, you know something magical's about to happen," explained owner Bobby Asaro. He's been in the wedding business for nearly 30 years, and Southern Oaks was one of the first workplaces in the East to return after Katrina.
"I come from the school of Disney, and they teach you everything must be perfect when your customers are approaching your business so I've followed that theme for a long time, and it works," Asaro said.
That's why Asaro was blown away to get a city code enforcement violation for weeds and plant growth and sanitation in the mail last month for the lot he owns adjacent to his business.
Even more surprising was the date inspectors documented the violation. "It comes from 2014.. We were surprised to get it two years later. It was right after we purchased the lot next door so that might have been the reason," Asaro said. He purchased the property next door just a few weeks prior to the September 2014 violation date. A search of the property on Google Street View months before (February 2014) shows the un-kept property that runs alongside his manicured Southern Oaks Plantation parking lot.
"We went and fixed it up exactly how they wanted it, and it's been that way since 2014," Asaro told us.
The FOX 8 Defenders turned to the city for answers and learned Asaro is one of more than thousands of property owners city-wide to get one of the code enforcement violation letters.
"We recently, in June, sent out over 2,000 letters to just people who were in our backlog to say we have this on record. We don't wanna continue going through the lengthy, arduous process of researching this property if it's already in compliance. So if you've already fixed it or it changed hands and you've fixed it, again fill out this easy-to-use online form, send us some pictures and we will close the case," explained Ava Rogers, Deputy CAO for Operations for the City of New Orleans.
That's exactly what happened in Asaro's case. To ensure he was in good standing and to avoid potentially costly fines as his notice stated, he emailed the city pictures, and they responded. "They got right back to us, telling us, 'it looks good,'" he said.
Rogers says the city's code enforcement department has changed the way it tackles blight so inspectors can devote resources where they're needed most, focusing on the people who've just abandoned properties.
Clearing out the backlog is the latest step the city launched this summer, but earlier this year, Rogers says the city launched what it calls code enforcement "exit ramps," which include the "311 Exit" where a neighbor can call 311 and report blight. Code enforcement mails a letter before an inspector even assesses the property. The property owner has 30 days to address the complaint.
If a violation is found, inspectors will post a notice on the property. Again, the owner has 30 days to correct the violation with no fines or hearings. "In the past, we would have a hearing, a homeowner would come and say well look, I've already fixed this, but they had to take off from work to come to the hearing, they had to pay for administrative costs because the hearings are done by independent hearing officers so they'd have to pay $250 just to come and say I already did this," Rogers said.
Rogers feels the new process will save citizens and the city time and resources. So far this year, she says 500 property owners this year are in compliance.
"I'm thrilled to death, and I hope that it's especially out here in New Orleans East because we do need the help. We need properties manicured," Asaro said.
Back at Southern Oaks, employees chip in beyond property lines, cutting the grass on the levee across street for one. "We're picking up litter from the time they're getting off the Interstate at Crowder," Asaro explained. Employees often remove illegal signs that litter the neutral ground.
The FOX 8 Defenders staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women also field consumer complaints at 1-877-670-6397 or you can fill out an online complaint form.