‘Bootleg’ building projects on the rise

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Unpermitted building projects have increased and the city has met the rise with stop-work orders. Critics say the convoluted and complex permit system causes people to circumvent the code permitting system.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

The City of Malibu official in charge of enforcing building and zoning codes said a recent uptick in violations is partially the result of the city’s new enforcement officer getting up to speed in the job.

But a longtime critic of the city’s permitting process said the increased number of “bootleg” projects is the result of a convoluted and complex permit system.

City Manager of Permit Services Gail Sumpter said she cannot determine if the increase of stop-work orders issued by the city is “a result of an increase in [illegal] work, or another factor such as our new code enforcement officer’s learning curve.”

In an interview last week, Sumpter said she could not provide exact statistics about the number or nature of building code violations noted by the city.

Sumpter comments came after city Environmental and Community Development Director Vic Peterson told the City Council two weeks ago that the number of code violations had grown recently, and that three to four stop-work orders per day were being issued.

The city’s lone code enforcement position was vacant for several months, and Sumpter said the new code officer, Lisa Tent, has “a learning curve in a new position, and that has resulted in an increase in stop-work orders.”

Sumpter said some of the violations have been for large projects, such as installations of septic systems or the grading of environmentally sensitive areas.

“If somebody is installing an onsite wastewater system without a permit, that means we don’t have a chance to inspect it, and we don’t have a chance to make sure the public health is protected,” she said.

Sumpter said other projects being built without permits are relatively small.

“We’re trying not to get bogged down with things like a homeowner changing out a window, where some people don’t realize that they either needed a permit or planning approval,” she said. “A big part of what we do is try to guide them through the system.”

But Sumpter said city codes must be enforced evenly, “or otherwise it’s not fair to everybody else concerned.”

Paul Grisanti, a Malibu Realtor and land use consultant, said the city’s codes change so often that even local professionals get confusing and contradicting direction.

“The increase in bootleg construction is a direct result of the fact that our permitting procedure is so long, so convoluted and so incomprehensible to most individuals that they come to the conclusion that they would be better off begging for forgiveness at the end of the process,” Grisanti said.

“Even architects and those who work with the process on a daily basis constantly find themselves been surprised by a process that is not the same from one time to the next,” he said.

Grisanti, however, said he always advises his clients to follow the codes, “and hire a local architect who is familiar with local rules and who knows the people at the city.”

Sumpter acknowledged that the process can be frustrating, particularly for homeowners who do not know how to get permits and what is covered.

“We try to be very customer-service oriented, so the people can come in and ask for the assistance they need, and they will get it,” she said.