Sterling Heights city council votes to breathe life into odor rules

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published August 20, 2021

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STERLING HEIGHTS — The city of Sterling Heights recently adopted a proposal designed to clarify its restrictions on offensive odors that disturb the public.

The City Council unanimously voted July 20 to adopt the ordinance amendment proposal, which amended the City Code’s chapters 1, 11 and 33.

The council originally deliberated on the odor issue July 6 when it voted unanimously to introduce the proposal, a prerequisite to adoption.  

While certain rules on odors are already in the books, some city officials, like Assistant City Attorney Don DeNault Jr., said the city’s tools are currently limited. He said code enforcement officials cannot give out typical nuisance misdemeanors because they’re not police officers. So the new rules’ purpose is to ensure that code enforcement can deal with resident odor complaints effectively, DeNault explained.

The new rules, DeNault explained, would frame objectionable odors as a noncriminal municipal civil infraction with a fine, like a traffic ticket. It works like this:

• In the first case, an illegal action that causes an objectionable odor that leaves the property line could be punished. An example, DeNault said, would be bringing a stinky horse to a property.

• In the second case, an odor would have to smell so intensely and for so long that, upon city verification, it exists off the property line and unreasonably interferes with a neighbor’s or the public’s peace, comfort, repose or health, officials said.

DeNault added that the city doesn’t have “a major, major problem” with odors right now, and he also believes that diplomacy could solve some cases before a fine would be necessary.

“I think talking to people works and really helps resolve these, and I think that will continue to happen,” he said.

Fines under the proposal will start at $500 and gradually increase for repeated offenses to $750, $1,000 and ultimately to a $1,500 maximum, DeNault said. He said violations could be counted once per day, but code enforcement typically gives a reasonable time window for the offender to clean up the act.

“It’s not like the city is going to come to your house and say, ‘You know, your horse is causing all this odor; we’re going to ticket you every 15 minutes,’” DeNault said. “It’s, ‘Let’s talk to you about removing the horse,’ trying to solve the problem, give you a reasonable amount of time.”

DeNault added that exceptions exist for situations like certain construction odors or open burning, the latter of which is governed by the fire code. Other exemptions include incidental traffic, parking, loading or maintenance; public services; and certain agricultural uses in agriculturally zoned areas, he said.

The council reacts
When it was time for the City Council to speak at the July 6 meeting, Councilman Henry Yanez asked who would determine the level of offensiveness and asked if it would fall under a “reasonable person” standard. DeNault said the reasonable person standard would be involved, and a city worker — a code enforcement, police or fire official — would make the ultimate call on verifying the odor’s offensiveness. DeNault added that the number of complainants would be considered, too.

Councilwoman Deanna Koski asked whether composting would be impacted by this proposal, or smoking meat. DeNault said regular composting, residential gardening, landscaping and mulching would not be affected, and neither would standard barbecuing. Only illegal activities, such as turning a shed into a smoker without permits, would be affected, he said.

Mayor Michael Taylor voted yes on the proposal’s introduction but wanted to further speak to city legal officials about it. He said he didn’t really like how one portion of the proposal states that the malodorous activity must be illegal, but another part makes no such stipulation.

Taylor added that he was concerned with industrial-level marijuana grow operations, whether illegal or technically legal under state guidelines.

“I would say that the heavy marijuana smell is already something that causes substantial annoyance,” he said. “I know it does, and if you don’t think it does, you’re free to read my emails. There are a lot of people that don’t like it.”

When asked by Councilman Michael Radtke about the proposal and marijuana operations, DeNault said the ordinance would penalize illegal marijuana growers, and he added that lawful growers are still obliged to keep odor on their own property and cannot trespass on other people’s rights.

“You may have a right to do something,” DeNault said. “You have a right to use fireworks. You have a right to own a gun. You have a lot of different statutory and constitutional rights in society. But at the same time, there comes a point when your rights can’t trespass on the rights of others, to be free of the incursions that those might bring.”

At the July 20 council meeting, the conversation continued.

Councilwoman Maria Schmidt wanted to address the concern some people have raised that “the city is going to come and bust the doors down and, you know, charge the house and demolish things inside the house” over the odor issue. City Attorney Marc Kaszubski said the new rules don’t give the city door-busting rights, just ticketing authority.

Taylor asked how the ordinance would tell the difference between actions the resident can control versus ones that can’t be helped.

“For example, I was concerned if a skunk comes and sprays on my property; well, now there’s an offensive odor emanating from my property,” Taylor said.

Kaszubski said things the resident can’t control, like a neighbor’s gasoline leak crossing the property line, wouldn’t be penalized. Furthermore, a skunk spray would neither be pervasive nor extended in duration, he explained.

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