Are we a city of snitches or of laws?

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Nearly 200 people overflowed the Malibu Community Center auditorium last Thursday to complain to the City Council about what they saw as an overzealous code enforcement policy pitting neighbor against neighbor and dependent on people snitching on their neighbors to enforce the law.

Residents also charged that millions of city dollars are being used to prosecute homeowners as criminals instead of buying ball fields or school books.

This special City Council meeting had been billed as an educational “Code Enforcement Workshop,” at which the city had intended to discuss its 14-page information packet about the code enforcement policy before allowing public comment. Instead, the City Council members, building and planning staff and City Prosecutor William Litvak found themselves facing a combative audience, more inclined to speak than listen and brandishing its own thick information packet.

After 2-1/2 hours of emotional testimony, the council unanimously voted to create a code enforcement task force, the composition of which would be discussed at the council’s Feb. 28 meeting.

A constant refrain was the “grandfathering” of old structures. Staff claimed nonconforming residences were grandfathered if they were permitted or permittable when built. Residents claimed they are driven out of their homes by the financial burden the city imposes for building permits for grandfathered structures and the $1,000-per-day criminal fines referred to in the city’s ordinance passed in November.

Litvak said large daily fines were rarely asked for, but a number of speakers were incensed by the city’s letters they said used threatening terminology in mentioning fines and potential jail sentences.

“I could be paying $336,000 a month,” said Judy Decker, instrumental in crafting the city’s General Plan. “This ordinance should be repealed today.”

A woman complained about the burden of proof. “I have been in my home 35 years and all kinds of buildings have been here. It is almost impossible to prove they are legal. Are these buildings really dangerous?”

Building official Vic Peterson, in charge of code enforcement, faced an angry crowd for the second month in a row and, observably under stress, appeared defensive, reacting angrily and patronizingly to some questions. He said 95 percent of the cases were complaint driven, and out of the current 388 open cases, the 22 (5.7 percent) to be prosecuted were negligible. “This problem is a hell of a lot smaller than people think.”

Former Councilman Jeff Jennings challenged this. “Nobody cares how punitive the law is,” he said of the city. “There is the perception the law is being enforced to the letter more aggressively today than it was in the past. I am also hearing stories from people not prone to panic that enforcement has changed substantially.

“Does the city have a policy on this,” Jennings asked. “If a code enforcement officer comes to the property, does he or she examine just what is complained about or every other structure? Do I have to fix everything else?

“The Zoning Ordinance was only intended to apply to new buildings,” Jennings said to applause. “It was not designed to be the picture of Malibu.”

Peterson replied that, except for an obviously dangerous condition, the only thing the inspector checks is whether new construction applies to approved plans.

Referring to the city’s distinction between guest houses (which cannot be rented) and second units (which can), longtime activist Frank Basso noted, “I feel very sorry for people with rental units. The saddest thing is that they are turned in by their neighbors. This snitch mentality should stop. A name should be on every complaint.”

Responding to a question from resident Ann Hoffman as to why the city requires a building permit when the state does not, it became apparent there is an overlap of building codes. Malibu is required to enforce the state building code. The city also adopts the county and international Uniform Building codes, while creating more restrictive codes for issues such as septic systems and geology. No standard can be less restrictive than state law, said City Manager Harry Peacock, reading from the voluminous Municipal Code.

“People have a lot of questions based on misinformation,” said Peterson. He said grandfathered structures, those legally built before March 26, 1993, still require building permits and inspections. Reading from the state building code, he also said certain structures, including some fences, tool and storage sheds, playhouses and greenhouses, do not require a building permit.

Councilman John Harlow argued for council oversight. There is a conflict of interest in having only the building department and city prosecutor determine the outcome of the complaint, Harlow said.

Those interested in serving on the task force should contact City Manager Harry Peacock. Copies of the city’s code enforcement information packet are available from the city’s Building Department.