By C.J. Barbre
Editor's note: This is part of a continuing series on cleaning up Tulare County
It's all very official. The hearings are recorded. Steve Hunt, who works for the city of Tulare as a code enforcement officer with the fire department, was acting as the hearing officer for the afternoon portion of the monthly code compliance hearing by Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA) on Wednesday, July 20. Meetings are held on the third Wednesday of the month.
Hunt said the fact that he was not a county employee meant that he was unbiased. The microphones in the fairly small hearing room broadcast voices loud enough to be intimidating or create an echo if the speaker was sitting close. "We're at 5961 S. Mooney Blvd. It is 1:09 p.m. Everyone will sign a document that you will tell the truth," he said to the half dozen people in the room. Hunt asked everyone to leave except the first violator. We will call her Mrs. Jones for purposes of anonymity.
Mrs. Jones, a Woodville resident, had five violations. Each was properly listed by section number of the Tulare County Ordinance Code for her mobile home installed without a building permit or inspection (1), likewise a laundry room (2), and an enclosed porch (3). This county resident was also cited for accumulation of solid waste (4), and violation No. 5 was for storage of inoperative vehicles and vehicle parts stored outside of an enclosed building.
One need not trek to Woodville to know pretty much what the property looks like. Bruce Kendall, who served as the county's only building and zoning inspector and code enforcement person until about six months ago, said the only change in the property since his last inspection was a new "Do Not Trespass" sign. There has been a backlog of 1,600 cases.
The RMA changed its fee or fine policy earlier this year. By the time violations go to hearing, the fine jumps to $1,050. It all starts with a complaint by someone. RMA code compliance is a "reactive agency" according to Lissa Davis, who heads up the code compliance division of RMA's Long Range Planning Branch. The party is notified and there is an initial inspection to verify a complaint with a 15-day window to comply. This is followed by a second inspection. If the party has failed to comply, they receive a "Notice to Abate" and 30 days to comply. If they fail to do so the fine is bumped to $270. A third notification brings the fine up to $765.
And now, having failed to appear and failed to fix the violations, in addition to the $1,050 fine, Mrs. Jones may be subject to a fine of up to $1,000 per violation per day. But what are the county's chances of collecting? (That is a rhetorical question.) They can put a lien on the property but that is no quick fix either. These things can and do frequently take years to resolve.
RMA appears to be very democratic in their selections. This afternoon, in addition to the Woodville woman, they had a complaint from Springville about accumulation of solid waste and storage of inoperative vehicle; one from Porterville about several additions on a home, without permits or inspections; one from Lindsay about having a rodeo on four acres with no appropriate permits; and one from Ivanhoe about an auto salvage repair business in a residential zone, no permits, improper auto storage and other stuff.
The remaining RMA person seated at the table was permit tech, Jeff Bronzan, the silent assistant or "gofer," running out for subdivision maps or whatever might implement the proceedings.
Code enforcer Kendall had visited each of the properties and had the necessary photos and case files.
Smith vs. RMA permits
<$>The couple called next we will call Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They now lived out of state. Smitty Jr. said he had been deeded Porterville property, but had no proof of purchase, no deed in hand.
"We can't make an agreement with you until you have proof your parents have sold it to you," Davis said.
"It's only been four or five months," Smitty Jr. responded.
Hunt offered that three months was a long time to wait for a deed.
But they continued with the hearing, finding the property had three violations: a porch that might be encroaching on the legal setback area; an addition to the rear of the building; and "restructure" of a roof, all done without building permits or inspections as required by law. Davis duly read all of these into the record such as, "Violation No. 2-Section 7-15-1000/7-15-1065 of the Tulare County Ordinance Code and Sections 6 and 21 of the Tulare County Zoning Ordinance Code 352, as amended, governing yard areas in the R-1 Zone and uses that constitute a public nuisance - addition of a front porch without building permit or inspection required by law. The porch is located in the front yard setback area."
It turns out these problems had been on the books since 2002. Two permits had been applied for but never picked up, so it is county policy to void said permits. Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Smith were notified by regular and certified mail effective June 30, 2005, that they had three violations at up to $1,000 per day per violation until the county codes were complied with (they were set at $100 per day). They had to either obtain the appropriate building permits or demolition permits at double fees. Double fees are charged for permits if the party is already in violation.
"The house was still there yesterday with no changes," Inspector Kendall testified.
Smitty's rebuttal was that in 2002 the county would not issue a permit for the front porch (so it was built anyway). "Nobody can tell me where the property line is, so up until yesterday you would not accept the plans." This was followed by a long discussion of how one determines one's own property lines, the bottom line of which was, the county said, "We're not responsible for finding your survey markers. You have to hire your own survey."
"I can't believe that!" Smitty responded.
Finally Jeff Bronzan was sent on a mission to find the subdivision map so they could perhaps determine the property line and know if the porch was at the proper setback.
Smitty said he had no clue as to what they meant by "restructure of the roof," and the county struck that violation. He had submitted plans for the addition to the rear of the house, so received a 90-day extension.
"We get as close to the letter of the law as we can, but leave a little flex room," Davis said. She said the county did not want to appear "heavy handed." She upped approval time to 120 days for the porch and the rear addition. If everything was fixed, the county would drop the $6,000 in fines that had accrued, but Smitty would still have to pay double or $800 for the permits. And he still needed proof of ownership.
Last but far from least, he needed to remember to call for the completion inspection. "Please don't forget to call for the inspection," Lisa said. "They buy the permit and pickup the permit then forget to call for an inspection," she reiterated.
The four-acre rodeo, un-permitted
<$>The next violators we will call Maria and Juan Rodriguez. If violators don't speak English, they must bring their own translators. Fortunately Juan spoke English. Maria spoke only Spanish. They had five violations at their spread outside of Lindsay that "constitute a public nuisance" including assemblage of people for rodeo grounds and roping arena (1), announcer's booth and bleachers (2), shades or livestock stalls (3) built without permits; park trailer installed and occupied outside of an RV park (4); and accumulation of solid waste (5).
This is where you just want to give the Rodriguezes credit for their initiative, but a neighbor complained and there they were. Actually the first complaint came in May 2001. Davis read down the list of complaints and inspections and meetings and permits issued and notices mailed - about a dozen dates over the years.
And there was the problem of 14 horses and five steers on the property which could legally have no more than two animals per acre for a total of nine for the site without a special use permit which the county promised them they would never be able to get.
Juan said it wasn't a rodeo, but a wedding celebration that had been complained about and the sheriff's department would back him up.
The bottom line was the county gave the couple six months to get everything legal with no fines, or a $15,000 fine and $1,000 administrative cost for handling the case all the way back to 2001.
Editor's note: Next week read about the new county code enforcer, who has some innovative ideas.