City makes code enforcement strides

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The City Council struck out in a new direction this week and in a unanimous 5-0 vote instructed their staff to begin the process to liberalize the rules relating to home offices in Malibu

In Malibu, because of old zoning rules that prohibited employees or even occasional customers in one’s home office, lawyers, CPAs, psychiatrists, therapists, Web designers, writers, editors, artists, designers and the many others who choose to stay in touch with clients while they sit at a desk in the comfort of their own home, have to worry about violating the law and the ever present threat of code enforcement appearing at their door.

The council action on Monday was a first step in making changes.

“I’m really pleased they are going ahead with the reform,” said Anne Hoffman, spokesperson for Malibu Homeowners for Reform, a group that was instrumental in moving the city toward code reform.

While the trend and benefits of working from home have grown in the past 10 years, the city still needed to catch up with a telecommunication age where cell phones, modems and laptops are the norm and home offices have become a desirable option for many. The Malibu zoning code was adopted in 1993 shortly after incorporation.

“They implemented a lot of what L.A. County had because it needed to be done quickly,” said Hoffman.

Most people felt that the code was too narrowly written for home-based businesses to comply with, and they asked the city to make changes so that home business owners could be encouraged in a city where the ratio of businesses does not match the number of residents, and the development of commercial structures is limited for lack of space

The staff report, which is the starting point for the new ordinance, speaks of allowing up to three employees in the home office setting, and many other changes that deal with signage, meetings, deliveries, hours and excluded business, which will all have to be hammered out as the proposed new home office ordinance works its way through the Planning Commission. Councilmembers were clear in their intentions that they wanted to legalize most low-impact home business, and they were headed to a rational set of new rules to level out the playing field between home businesses and large estates that have countless employees coming in and out of their properties.

In another code enforcement area, relating to allegedly unpermitted structures, Malibu’s Building Official Vic Peterson defended the current policy, but indicated to the council they were flexible. In a far-ranging discussion about code enforcement he said that eviction deadlines were being extended practically “ad infintum.”

To ease communication in the future, the city asked Peterson to clearly state the extension option in letters sent out to alleged violators from now on to avoid panicking people.

Peterson also delivered a written memo to the council, which the council then adopted as instructions to staff, in hopes that it would answer the often heard complaint that the rules and procedures were all oral and people were uncertain about what the rules said.

As code wordage was technical and somewhat ambiguous and councilmembers themselves were constantly asking for clarification, Mayor Tom Hasse suggested, and Petersen agreed, that the existing Board of Appeals’ duties should include code enforcement issues.

“This will give people, who believe there has been a mistake, a chance to appeal and the decision will not entirely fall on code enforcement,” Hasse said.

Additionally, to increase understanding and access by the public to the revised regulations, the council instructed that the new materials be posted on the city’s Website as soon as possible.