PHOENIXVILLE — A new ordinance defining graffiti and providing regulations for its removal was approved by borough council Tuesday night.
Although some members of council and a public commenter had issues with what they felt was ambiguous language, the ordinance was approved in a 6-2 vote.
“It gives the borough codes department some teeth to work with residences and garages that have graffiti that were written on,” said Borough Manager Jean Krack. “Our intent is not to be pursuing the penalty side of things. What we want is to get the properties cleaned up. We want graffiti to go away.”
The ordinance was culled from others around the country and has been worked on for two years, according to Krack.
It updates chapter six of the borough’s official codes, which deals with “conduct,” which previously had no section dealing with graffiti.
Within the ordinance, graffiti is defined as “any unauthorized inscription, word, figure, mark, design, painting or other defacement that is written, marked, etched, scratched, sprayed, drawn, painted or engraved” on “public or private property by any graffiti implement, to the extant that the graffiti was not authorized in advance by the owner of the property.”
That does no include sidewalk chalk, which is provided for in the ordinance.
Additionally, the ordinance also declares graffiti as nuisance and notes that “it is the duty of the owner of the property or building to which the graffiti has been applied to, at all times, keep the property clear of graffiti.”
Any graffiti is prescribed, first and foremost, to be removed by the person who applied it within 24 hours of being notified by the borough.
“We feel a lot of the language is really bland and open to interpretation,” Councilman Mike Kuznar said during a public hearing for the ordinance at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Councilman Shai Perednik said he felt the language in the ordinance is “loose and ambiguous.”
“What is graffiti and what is art?” he said.
Lisa Longo, a member of the public who also serves on the borough’s beautification advisory commission, shared Kuznar and Perednik’s concerns.
“What happens if there’s a dispute?” she said. “Someone says it’s a nuisance; someone says it’s art.”
Borough Solicitor Sean Kilkenny said the ultimate decision would come down to Jean Krack.
However, Councilman Chris Bauers said graffiti is clearly defined.
“The key word(s) in that definition (are) ‘unauthorized,’ ‘without consent,’” Bauers said. “If a property owner chooses to put a peace sign on the side of their house, it has their consent to put the peace sign on the side of their house. It is not graffiti, by definition.”
Council President Jim Kovaleski said any mention of “nuisances” in the ordinance “refers back to graffiti.”
“It must be unauthorized,” Kovaleski said.
“One of the things we know for certain is graffiti, in its unauthorized form, is associated with gangs,” Krack said. “The police department works very hard to keep gangs out of this community. That’s what everybody wants.”
If another property owner finds some kind of art on another house a nuisance, that does not fall under the graffiti ordinance, according to Kovaleski.
The ordinance also stipulates that the property owner must remove the graffiti if the perpetrator is not caught or does not remove it. This must be done within 15 days of receiving notice by the borough.
If that doesn’t happen, the borough would come in to remove it, at cost to the perpetrator or property owner.
Perednik had concerns over how exactly the borough could enter a property to remove graffiti and potential liabilities associated with that.
Krack said staff could only enter a person’s property with a court order to remove the graffiti. Police would not be involved in the process.
Failing to remove graffiti could result in a fine of up to $600 for the perpetrator or property owner, as well.
Longo brought up concerns over the financial impact on a property owner if graffiti is put on their property but the perpetrator is never caught. Kuznar echoed that.
“Our goal is not to punish people with a fine,” Krack said. “What we are asking, what we would ask, is we would knock on the door, say, ‘Somebody tagged your house. Hey, would you go out and take that over?’ If they don’t have the wherewithal to do that, we would ask to go ahead and do that.”
“Most of these graffiti are very small in nature,” Krack said. “We’re not talking $100 or $150 worth of paint and what-have-you,” Krack continued. “We want it taken care of. We are going to have some recalcitrant homeowners, there will be people who oppose that scenario. That’s why we have the ability to use the judge. Again, it’s not to get them penalized: it’s to get the graffiti off”
Both Kuznar and Perednik voted in favor of tabling the ordinance to look at the language in it further, but they received no other support.
The graffiti ordinance was approved as-is 6-2, with Kuznar and Perednik representing the dissenting votes.