Complaints misunderstand Code Compliance
August 31, 2013
In recent weeks there have been a couple of articles in The Union regarding the county’s Code Compliance program. The essence of these articles is that the code compliance function is being criticized because the employees assigned to this program are bullying and harassing citizens through enforcement of the county codes. There was also a wild-eyed, bombastic request during this year’s budget hearings to eliminate the code compliance function entirely.
What is Code Compliance? Code Compliance helps improve and maintain the quality of life by working with property owners to correct code violations in relation to property, buildings and structures. This could mean things as minor as garbage strewn across private property or inoperable vehicles to something as serious as raw sewage spilling from a homeowner’s septic system into a creek. Often times it relates to the lack of permits and inspections for structures. Our building code is the California Residential Code given to all local governments by the state. It requires permits with particularly specific conditions for structures which will be inhabited by people. These conditions are generally required for the integrity of the structure and the health and safety of the inhabitants.
Code Compliance is a very difficult task, and the employees in that program have to tell people who are not in compliance with county codes things they don’t want to hear like: “I’m sorry but you have to get a permit for that structure,” or “Unfortunately, you must stop building until you get a permit,” or the most difficult,“I’m very sorry but your structure violates numerous building, health and safety codes, and you need to get a demolition permit to take your structure down.” These are not statements that can easily be sugar coated and are only said after lengthy investigations, numerous warnings, problem-solving and often other due-process opportunities.
Our Code Compliance personnel receive extensive training in their field, including but not limited to customer service and communication strategies, which lead to positive resolution. They are backed up by the experts in the Planning, Building, Environmental Health, Public Works and other departments of the county.
In the county of Nevada, we emphasize compliance first and enforcement as a last resort. We also only proactively pursue health and safety violations (for example, exposed electrical wiring, failing septic systems and the like) or citizen complaints about violations in their neighborhoods. These citizen complaints, neighbor on neighbor, are very difficult because there is often a long history in a neighborhood conflict and the county is brought in as leverage in the neighbors’ struggles.
In fact, Code Compliance has been the subject of three grand jury reports in a little more than a decade where there have been recommendations that the county should emphasize enforcement over voluntary compliance of the codes. In all three of the grand jury reports, there were specific recommendations that essentially stated, “The county should modify its philosophy to emphasize enforcement over voluntary compliance,” and, “The county should direct staff to routinely charge double inspection fees for permits resulting from code actions.” The board of supervisors’ compliance philosophy is in opposition to that view. The board of supervisors believes that enforcement should only be used as a last resort and only double the fees with the most recalcitrant of individuals. The board of supervisors wants the county to work with the citizens if the citizens want to comply with the codes.
In the first of the two The Union articles, this article goes on to describe a difficult and elongated process to resolve a complaint-driven yet serious code violation. In the second article, a gentleman who spoke to the board and was quoted in the article about not attaching fees on long-standing code violating properties. His statement was rather self-serving since he has even more serious code violations than most. His case is a good example of why code compliance is important to the public’s health, safety and quality of life.
Consider this gentleman’s case: In August 2011, a citizen complained that the gentleman had built an unpermitted cabin in a flood plain and no-build area adjacent to Deer Creek, and it was being advertised as a vacation rental. An unpermitted primitive septic system was part of the development adjacent to the public waterway. In discussion with county staff, the gentleman stated he was aware that a structure could not be there, but he built it anyway. A warning notice was issued and a compliance date of October, 2011 was given. Staff explored alternative site locations with the gentleman, but due to difficult site restrictions, only one alternative could be a possibility. He declined any action, and a second notice of warning was issued and a new compliance date of December 2011 was given. A meeting in December 2011 with his attorney and staff, including a fire planner, concluded after six months of discussion that the cabin could not be permitted because, among other issues, the steep slope prevented safe access. In August 2012, a third notice was given, and the gentleman decided to apply for a Management Plan and Map Amendment. These were finally completed in March 2013. The Planning Commission heard his applications in June 2013 and denied them. He was given one last citation warning and an extension to comply by Aug. 23, 2013. If he has not complied, he will be cited.
There are some who might think the county has been too patient and lenient in this matter, but staff took the time to try and get the individual to comply. In this case, it appears we have been unsuccessful, and this will become an enforcement matter with all of its due-process provisions.
Rick Haffey is the CEO of the county of Nevada.