Dunwoody Code Compliance Officer Tom LaPenna places a stop work order at a residence. Photo by Ellen Eldridge.
Dunwoody Code Compliance Officer Tom LaPenna places a stop work order at a residence. Photo by Ellen Eldridge.

Dunwoody Code Compliance Officer Tom LaPenna doesn’t have to look for things to do in Dunwoody. The residents call him.

He climbs into his car daily with a list of places that people have complained about. They call about anything from tall grass and stagnant pool water to illegal yard signs.

On June 19, as he set off on his morning rounds, a Post-it note clung to the dashboard of his white cityCode Enforcement car. LaPenna wanted to remind himself to stop by a home on Manget Court to place a “stop work” order on an in-ground pool.

Dunwoody Code Compliance Officer Tom LaPenna.
Dunwoody Code Compliance Officer Tom LaPenna.

“It looks like we’re the bad guys because we’re saying that’s wrong and that’s wrong,” but LaPenna said ensuring that all construction workers have proper plans and permits is about safety and zoning.

Dunwoody Homeowners Association President Robert Wittenstein said the work code compliance officers do is a direct result of the city’s incorporation.

Robert Wittenstein
Robert Wittenstein

“He is one of the primary faces of Dunwoody, and one of the reasons we formed the city was to have enhanced code enforcement,” Wittenstein said.

But, though he’s often called out, LaPenna said he and his co-workers aren’t popular. “We’re not very popular,” he said laughing. “We don’t get any Christmas cards.”

Dunwoody’s three code compliance officers don’t carry handcuffs and they don’t make arrests. The lights on their cars flash yellow and orange, not red or blue.

LaPenna works for a private company that contracts with the city to enforce its laws on such matters as property maintenance and construction quality.

In other cities, he said, the company’s officers drive around all day looking for violations. “I don’t have to do that in Dunwoody,” he said.

On one occasion, a resident called about a neighbor’s stagnant pool, LaPenna said, but the officer, who often jokes about his short stature, said he couldn’t see over the fence into the neighbor’s back yard. Privacy laws prevent code enforcement officers from using extraordinary measures to find violations, so the complainant invited LaPenna into his home to look down into the neighbor’s yard from his upstairs bedroom.

One thing residents regularly complain about is signs. Yard sale, garage sale, real estate and missing pet signs sprout up “like mushrooms,” LaPenna said. He says if he stopped to pull an illegal sign up every time he saw one, he’d get nothing else done.

But he doesn’t want residents stopping in dangerous places to pull up illegal signs, so he goes out three times a month just to police signs.

During a chat with the DHA board in June, LePenna talked of one set of signs that caused him problems. The signs were posted for a missing dog named Buddy. “Buddy was driving us crazy,” LaPenna said, because he and fellow code compliance officer Chris Lee said to themselves, “We like dogs. We want somebody to find this dog.” But then they started seeing fliers zip-tied to stop signs. “You could not go anywhere without seeing a sign for Buddy, but we’re glad Buddy was found.”

LaPenna said his job makes the city safer. One of the first things current Mayor Mike Davis did when he was elected was to implement a program intended to crack down on code violations such as overflowing trash bins, LaPenna said.

Lee conducts “apartment sweeps,” visiting each of the city’s 32 complexes, recording violations and putting together reports for property managers. “Electrical problems are the priority,” Lee said.

LaPenna said some complexes have outdated sprinkler systems or violations such as paint covering the sprinkler heads.

Dunwoody Glen in January lost four of its units in a fire that burned all the way down to a fire wall. In examining the damage, LaPenna used his experience as a building inspector to request an engineer’s report.

“It was a fire wall: a cinderblock wall, and that wasn’t constructed as the main wall of the whole building, so we wanted an engineer’s report on how to proceed and design,” he said. “Because of the cross-training we are able to do more with a small staff.”