Up to Code
The grass is a foot high. The dumpster hasn’t been emptied in a couple of weeks. The deck looks like it’s hanging by a thread. Somebody needs to get on that.
he Mt. Lebanon Inspection Office is responsible for most things having to do with construction here, including issuing permits for projects and performing periodic inspections as the projects progress toward completion. The office is also responsible for inspecting all private swimming pools annually, and ensuring that all buildings comply with the grading, building, solid waste, zoning and health and safety chapters of the Mt. Lebanon Code.
Abby Waine and Brian Dinkfelt are code enforcement officers, responsible for ensuring compliance with the municipality’s health and safety ordinances. If a property is not up to our standards for health and safety, Waine and Dinkfelt will work with the owners to make sure they take the necessary steps to bring the property back into compliance.
Waine has a degree in safety management from Slippery Rock and came to Mt. Lebanon in 2020 from the City of Pittsburgh, where she worked as a combined operations inspector in the Permits, Licenses and Inspections Department. Dinkfelt graduated from Penn State with a degree in civil engineering. Before coming to Mt. Lebanon last year, he held a variety of positions in White Oak Borough, including code enforcement officer, zoning officer, flood plain manager and fire official, and was also in charge of planning.
The officers investigate complaints about property maintenance violations, and also violations of other sections of the code, including uncovered trash, pools of standing water, unsanitary waste deposits and foliage encroaching on the sidewalk. If they find code violations, they will notify the owners with a letter that lists the section of the code that is at issue, outlines corrective measures the owner needs to take and gives a timeframe for completion.
If the property owner doesn’t take any action to correct the violations, the inspectors can issue citations and a district judge can impose fines, but it’s not about the money. Waine and Dinkfelt would rather work with owners to find a resolution to the problems.
“We can fine someone $1,000, but if instead of paying a fine, they put that $1,000 back into their property, everybody benefits,” Dinkfelt said.
He estimates about a third of the notices the office sends out end up in front of the district judge. Even at that stage, the officers will still try to find ways to solve the issue without resorting to fines or other punishment.
“If someone shows they’re making progress, we can recommend giving them additional time to complete the work,” said Waine. “Some people need a lot of time, but if they’re making a good faith effort, we’ll work with them.”
A morning in court gives a snapshot of the efforts to bring properties into compliance. Several defendants were scheduled to appear before District Judge Hilary Wheatley to report on the progress they have made. The first two were able to show significant progress in the work they were tasked with completing, and had valid reasons why they needed more time—weather, lack of contractors, personal issues—and received extensions from the judge, based on the recommendations of the officers.
Another defendant showed some—but very little—progress on the violation, and drew Wheatley’s ire.
“I know fines are not the answer, but more time doesn’t seem to work either,” she told the defendant. So she gave a clear picture, one more time, of what the property owner needed to do, what she defined as sufficient progress, and gave one last 30-day extension, with the understanding that the hammer is ready to come down.
Following the retirement of longtime district judge Blaise Larotonda in 2019, the court had a rotating series of justices who heard cases until Wheatley was elected to the position in 2021 and took office in January 2022. Waine says having the same judge to work with makes a world of difference.
“So often, the judges weren’t familiar with the cases, and they might not have had time to review them before the hearing,” she said. “A lot of times, people could give the same arguments they gave in the previous hearings.” Wheatley has been on the bench long enough to know the background of the complaints.
“She does a very good job of emphasizing the urgency of the situation to the defendant,” Dinkfelt said.
The inspectors and the judge work with the defendants to resolve the issue. If the judge rules against you, you have the option to appeal the ruling to a higher court, but doing so takes away any leeway the officers have in dismissing the case.
If you spot a situation that you think may be a code violation, call the Mt. Lebanon Inspection Office at 412-343-4584, or 412-343-7034. While the inspectors will respond to anonymous complaints, they will not trespass onto a property to investigate a potential violation. If they can’t see a violation from the public right of way, the inspectors will ask for access to the complainant’s property.
“We have to see what you see,” Dinkfelt said. “Like the search and seizure rules the police follow, we can only act on what’s in plain sight.”
Another thing the inspectors can’t do is enter a resident’s home to inspect for violations. Mt. Lebanon has not adopted the International Property Maintenance Code, which would enable inspectors to enter homes. If there’s an issue inside the home, such as a hoarding situation, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Allegheny County Health Department’s Housing Division.
If a first responder notices an unhealthy situation, such as hoarding, while responding to a call, they will notify the code enforcement office, but if a resident does not grant permission to enter the home, the county health department will take over, and may eventually need to obtain a search warrant.
The division of labor can be confusing to residents who report violations. For example, if weeds or other foliage encroach on a sidewalk, making it difficult to walk, it’s a code enforcement issue. If bushes or hedges obstruct drivers’ vision, it becomes a police matter. Code enforcement handles overgrown grass, while the police are responsible for snow and ice complaints.
After a snowfall, residents have 24 hours to clear their sidewalks, and business owners must clear their sidewalks within four hours of accumulation between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays.
“The police can enforce more immediately than we can,” explained Dinkfelt. “So if we were to issue a violation for snow and ice, it’s a 28-day process.”
The officers are working with police to ensure houses have prominently displayed house numbers. Mt. Lebanon code requires house numbers to be at least 4 inches tall and placed in a position where they can easily be read from the street.
Upon receiving a complaint, the inspectors will investigate the situation, and will also be on the lookout for similar violations in the surrounding area.
“We don’t do selective enforcement,” said Waine.
While working with residents to resolve problems, the officers will often be asked to recommend contractors who can do the work, but the inspection office is prohibited from recommending specific contractors.
Code enforcement officers respond to a wide range of situations. On a recent afternoon, they investigated and monitored progress on a property that formerly had chickens and now has an empty chicken coop. If a chicken coop is empty for more than a year, it must be razed, but the resident wanted to use it as a shed. Sheds have different regulations than coops, and the owner needs to make some adjustments.
Another homeowner applied for and was granted a permit for a new driveway, never picked up or paid for the permit, but still had the work done. A building permit must be prominently displayed during the construction process, and the permit also has a list of requirements and required inspections that must be completed before the project is done.
“If you don’t pick up your permit, but you complete the work, you’ll get a violation notice,” Dinkfelt said.
One property posed a problem because the owner had passed away with no trace of any family to assume responsibility for the home. While Mt. Lebanon does not have many unoccupied properties, the officers will take time to track down family members any way they can.
“We do a deep dive,” Waine said, “look through obituaries and other online resources, trying to find someone to contact.”
Leaning walls, fences in disrepair, unpermitted construction projects, grass and weed complaints and more. In all cases, Waine and Dinkfelt take an abundant amount of photos to document their findings.
“Just contact us if you get a notice,” Waine said. “We’ll work with you.”
The more you know
Want to keep the inspectors away? Here’s a summary of some issues covered under the health and safety code.
Grass and weeds: With the exception of ornamental grasses and produce, grass cannot exceed 6 inches in height.
Sanitation: All garbage, trash and rubbish must be stored in airtight, vermin-proof containers and screened from public view. Letting garbage pile up may constitute a health or safety hazard, or harbor insects or rodents. Garbage cannot be placed at the curb prior to 6 p.m. the night before pickup.
Grading and drainage: Proper drainage prevents the accumulation of stagnant water. Don’t create a situation where stormwater can be channeled from your property onto an adjoining property.
Material storage: No storage of commercial, industrial or building materials on exterior property areas, except when such materials are being used in an active construction project.
Signs: Signs are regulated under Mt. Lebanon’s sign ordinance. Signs of any kind cannot be placed in municipal right of way areas
Building exteriors: No holes in walls, no loose or rotting timbers or any other condition that could lead to rain damage or rodent infestation on the property. Roofs drainage, gutters and downspouts must be in good condition to prevent dampness in the walls or the inside of a building.