A downtown Mt. Pleasant building owner has until the end of the month to take action against pigeons roosting in his storefront awning or face a misdemeanor citation from the city.
The hard deadline was handed to Norm Curtiss – owner of the building that houses Downtown Discount – as social media buzzed through September with community members wondering why significant amounts of pigeon excrement were allowed to build up on the sidewalks under the store’s awning.
Curtiss declined to comment on the issue.
City officials say that pigeon problem areas have been discussed for years and, while some business owners have taken steps to address roosting and nesting areas, others haven’t been successful with attempts or haven’t had the means to do so.
Further, a desire to gain compliance rather than using enforcement, coupled with a long summer filled with flood damage assessment and also a lack of specific pigeon dropping action plans spelled out in city code, prolonged official action, the city contends.
A roosting and nesting population of pigeons is not a new issue in downtown Mt. Pleasant.
Two years ago the city hired Bob Andrews, a pest control expert at Central Michigan University, to help with preventing the same problem.
At the time, Andrews and his team eliminated 100 pigeons from the downtown area and evaluated businesses for issues that would contribute to roosting and nesting pigeons if not addressed, according to documents obtained by the Morning Sun through the Freedom of Information Act.
Business owners were asked in general to remove trash from alleyways, to close up broken windows and to clean and close up awnings.
Andrews also suggested that bird slides and spikes could be used on ornate trim and facades to prevent birds from roosting.
“If downtown had proper deterrence and exclusion a small population could be managed under bridges or overpasses… with follow-through from business owners and property managers you will make a significant difference,” Andrews wrote.
At the time, many business owners hee ded the advice, said Downtown Development Director Michelle Sponseller, who was cautiously optimistic in September of 2015 after the pigeon culling.
“Although this is terrific news there are lingering related issues that we and various property owners need to address so that we don’t end up back where we were with pigeons in a year or two,” she wrote to several city leaders.
Indeed, by the end of 2016, those same city leaders were again talking about a booming pigeon population roosting and nesting in those places where Andrews’ advice was unheeded.
That included the awning of Downtown Discount, where chicken wire intended to keep pigeons out only appears to make the area even more like a coop for the birds.
With just over a year of experience heading Mt. Pleasant’s code enforcement, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Dunham started 2017 seriously looking into how to best address an again-growing problem of pigeon droppings on Mt. Pleasant sidewalks; he hoped for compliance from building owners.
“Our goal is to be proactive,” he said. “We get more ’buy-in’ and we can educate on regulations if they voluntarily comply. I hope they do it because they want to beautify the city. For the community.”
In a round-robin email started in June between Dunham, Sponseller, city manager Nancy Ridley, Community Services and Economic Development Director William Mrdeza, Fire Chief Rick Beltinck, and Director of Public Safety Paul Lauria possible legal enforcement options were discussed based on an opinion shared among the group from the city’s attorney.
Citing attorney-client privilege, the city withheld the opinion from the FOIA request; the emails indicate the attorney offered two possible options and also questioned whether a property owner can actually be the cause of pigeon droppings on sidewalks.
Ultimately on June 21 after speaking with Curtiss yet again, Dunham asked the group for more time to allow voluntary compliance.
“The city attorney is not overly confident we would be successful in prosecuting property owners for allowing pigeons to roost in their awnings,” Dunham wrote. “I spoke with (Curtiss) yesterday for quite some time… it’s my feeling he doesn’t want them either.”
A week later, historic flooding in Isabella County pulled Dunham from general code enforcement in the city to damage assessment for the entire county, changing his priorities through the summer.
In that time, no progress was made on the Downtown Discount awning as questions started to percolate through the community about the fecal matter covered sidewalks in the center of downtown.
As the problem worsened and social media pigeon excrement buzz peaked, Dunham got what he thought was positive news – not only did Curtiss say he would remove the awning over the Labor Day weekend he did, at least in part; the canvas covering was gone.
“I was hopeful that this completed compliance and I headed downtown thinking I would be celebrating,” Dunham said. “Then I saw that underneath that awning was a more permanent structure; a wooding awning with a steel covering.”
A few more weeks of stalled progress on the removal, and Dunham sent Curtiss notice that under Mt. Pleasant’s nuisance code Curtiss has until Oct. 29 to follow specific action – close the awning to bird access, remove the awning completely or remove and replace with a bird-proof structure.
What will happen in court if a citation is issued is unclear, one reason the city hesitated to enforce a code in the first place.
“We like to be sure enforcement is going to be upheld,” Ridley said. “In this case we are looking to enforce a nuisance.”
In Mt. Pleasant, nuisance code in this situation isn’t as cut and dry as mowing a lawn or removing trash from a yard, Dunham said.
“Ordinances that spell out the process make it clear,” Dunham said. “But even when we are very clear on that, we still try to work with owners first..at least in those cases we have a deadline.”
Right now, city commissioners have plans to discuss a more specific blight ordinance in the city at an as-yet unscheduled work session, though pigeon excrement specifically hasn’t been discussed, Ridley said.
“My hope is that we can draft an ordinance,” Dunham said. “That we can get specific.”
Among the group of city leaders, many were quick to blame themselves for the long passing of time before taking decisive action regarding flith-covered sidewalks and for the public backlash that raged on Facebook for a few weeks.
“At the end of the day, the buck stops with me,” Ridley said. “Ultimately it’s on my shoulders.”
In the meantime things are looking brighter: at the beginning of October the sidewalks were power washed, a process requested more than a year ago by Sponseller.
The $7,300 per year expense is now a recurring contract, ensuring sidewalks are deep cleaned often enough for more basic upkeep during the rest of the year.
“That’s part of the solution ultimately,” Dunham said. “Clean the sidewalks and public places, remove roosting and nesting areas, and clear rules.”
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