Nuisance Laws May Clean Up Towns, but Activists Believe They Go Too Far

Article excerpt

Did you know it's a crime to play your car stereo too loudly in Mundelein?

Or that you could be fined for letting weeds at your home grow taller than 8 inches in Grayslake?

Or that inoperable vehicles cannot be left out in the open on driveways in Libertyville?

These regulations are on the books in Lake County, as are many other so-called nuisance laws designed to ensure a high quality of life in the community.

Nuisance laws can be found in most towns. Some have been in existence for years, but many have been enacted recently as local officials work to improve the appearances - and images - of their towns.

"The villages are trying to send a message that they're not going to tolerate continued 'nuisance' offenses," said Wauconda Police Chief Daniel Quick, whose village board approved a sweeping nuisance law this summer. "The villages are trying to get the courts to provide answers to some of these problems."

But not everyone is so enamored with the rules. Some people believe nuisance laws infringe on personal freedoms and create the potential for abuse and discrimination.

"They tend to be arbitrary and they tend to lead to discretionary enforcement," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the Chicago branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "And, it is the issue of discretionary enforcement that is of great concern."

Mundelein's car-stereo ordinance, approved in early September, states a motorist will be ticketed if his or her stereo can be heard from more than 75 feet away. It's one of several nuisance ordinances the village board has passed this year.

Mundelein also has new laws concerning abandoned or inoperable vehicles, where people can park on their property and how long their grass can be.

Some of these laws are similar to ordinances in other towns. For example, weeds and grass cannot be taller than 8 inches in Mundelein, 8 inches in Grayslake, 10 inches in Libertyville and 12 inches in Lake Zurich.

Several suburbs, including Mundelein and Wauconda, also have single, comprehensive ordinances that penalize tenants or property owners for violations at their homes - including public indecency, failure to remove garbage and alcohol-related offenses.

Repeated arrests for any of these violations result in the home being labeled a chronic nuisance and fines for the owner or tenant.

Village officials say nuisance laws are designed to make people more responsible citizens and to make sure they understand how the conditions of their homes, cars and lawns affect the rest of the community.

Because an overgrown lawn or loud stereo will aggravate residents and could hurt the image of a neighborhood or entire town, officials believe communities will be better places to live if people are accountable for their actions.

"We're trying to expand the concept of ownership and accountability to the whole community," Mundelein Police Chief Raymond J. Rose said.

But not all suburban residents feel the nuisance laws are the right way to go.

Maria Harris is one of several people who questioned the validity of Mundelein's car-stereo ordinance at a recent board meeting. She believes nuisance ordinances give police too much power.

"It's depriving you of your rights," the longtime Mundelein resident said. "Where do you draw the line?"

Although the ACLU's Yohnka declined to comment on any of the specific nuisance ordinances in use across the county, he criticized the general concept. The laws allow local governments to infringe on individuals' rights, he said.

"We are concerned about ordinances that regulate these sorts of things and become intrusive on citizens," he said. "They seem aimed at creating a sense of conformity that is really not the appropriate role of government. …