When Fred Wintrich and his family moved into their home on Seaton Drive last year, they brought along their RV and parked it in the driveway for their monthly camping trips. But after a complaint from an unhappy neighbor and $1,500 in fines, Wintrich learned that was illegal under an obscure city code he considered unnecessary.
Wintrich’s punishment could have been worse — city code violations can result in up to a $1,000 fine per citation or up to six months in jail.
“A disabled veteran with not so much as a parking ticket in the state of Georgia for the last 15 years gets sent to jail?” Wintrich said. “For an RV in my driveway?”
The city has never allowed RVs in driveways. It was a rule carried over from DeKalb County prior to the 2008 incorporation, said City Councilmember John Heneghan, who didn’t have another explanation for why it was an ordinance. But that rule was unclear to residents because of a jargon-heavy ordinance about setbacks, or the distance from property lines, that lacked a definition for the unusual term “street yard.”
“The city ordinance said you can’t park in the street yard,” Wintrich said. “It didn’t say anything about the driveway. So in my non-legally-trained brain, having your RV in your driveway wasn’t against the ordinances.”
Wintrich checked to make sure the neighborhood didn’t have a homeowners association when he moved in because he didn’t want to have a rule against parking his RV in his driveway.
The neighbor who filed the complaint asked not to be identified in this story. She said RVs and other similar vehicles like boats or trailers are “unsightly” and “lower the property value.”
“I pay for the house and the taxes,” she said. “You go through other neighborhoods that have similar homes, and they don’t have trash on their curbs or RVs at all, and they got an HOA. But why do we need one? You just call code enforcement.”
During an Aug. 24 meeting, the City Council passed an amendment to the ordinance to define “street yard” as the setback adjacent or parallel to a street that extends from the property line to the house. That definition clarifies that driveways are considered a part of a house’s street yard, and a diagram was also added with the hopes that would be more clear.
The amendment also clarifies that driveways are permitted in, and part of, the setbacks for street, side and rear yards.
In a chart that outlines the permitted and prohibited features of street, side and rear yard setbacks, the city clarified that “recreational vehicles, trailers, travel trailers, campers, pickup coaches, motorized homes, boat trailers, boats, and similar vehicles and equipment” are only permitted in “rear setbacks,” meaning a backyard that does not abut a public street.
The complaint against Wintrich was the only code enforcement complaint regarding RVs parking in the driveways since July 1, according to an open records request. In the Aug. 24 meeting, city staff member Richard Hathcock said residents were completing “honey-do lists” because of the pandemic, which is why the staff clarified the ordinance.
Wintrich said he did not know about the clarification. But, he said, he still sees houses with those types of code enforcement violations in his neighborhood every day.
“Your city relies on its neighbors to tattle on each other to enforce the code,” Wintrich said. “It makes it inherently biased to whatever doesn’t please the eye of your neighbor.”
City spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher said the city has two code enforcement officers who mostly work from resident complaints.
The neighbor who complained about Wintrich’s RV doesn’t see that ad hoc enforcement as a problem. She said it’s up to residents to make the complaints if there’s something against the city code in their neighborhood and wishes people would call code enforcement more.
“I’m older — retired — so I’m OK with being a grumpy old woman,” she said. “That suits me fine. I didn’t mind being a grumpy middle-aged or young woman. It’s my neighborhood.”
A Code Enforcement officer inspected the house in mid-June. Wintrich got a warning and three citations over a month-and-a-half period, according to the city case documents. Wintrich said the RV was in his driveway for nine months before he received any code enforcement citations.
Wintrich said he had planned to challenge the violation in the city Municipal Court but decided against it as he racked up more fines.
The complaining neighbor said those fines could be used to fund a “Tidy Dunwoody” campaign from the city.
“If Code Enforcement went around and gave people warnings first and then fines second, we would have enough money in the till citywide to do all sorts of beautification projects,” she said.
Wintrich now parks his RV in an Extra Space Storage facility in Alpharetta, for which he has to pay $125 monthly. He said that makes preparing for camping trips with his family more inconvenient because he has to go get the RV to prepare for the trip about a night in advance.
During an Aug. 10 meeting, Councilmember Heneghan asked the staff for a public relations campaign to tell homeowners about the clarification for those residents who may not have realized driveways were included in the street yard setbacks.
“I just know there’s a number of residents who have these RVs and thought they were legal,” Heneghan said in the meeting.
Heneghan said the council gets residents contacting them about both sides of the issue — those who want to keep their RVs in the driveway and neighbors who call out the code violation.
The city made a Facebook post about the amendment on Sept. 3. Wintrich paid his fines in court on Aug. 19, before the council passed the clarification.