Code enforcement tactics rile some Pt. Dume residents

About 35 Point Dume residents met Saturday to protest what they see as the city’s selective code enforcement in their neighborhood, where homeowners say they are being singled out for even the most minor violations.

Longtime residents say they are being treated like criminals by the city’s code enforcement officer, who has cited unpermitted sheds, structures, playhouses, barns, guest units or partition walls and even the lack of a two-car garage. And those who think their nonconforming structures were “grandfathered” may be in for a rude surprise.

“We should expect equal, legal, ethical and fair application of the law and should not be singled out for selective enforcement,” said resident Paul Major.

Much of the confusion comes from Los Angeles County’s approval of larger homes before Malibu incorporated, older residents say. So the rural character of Point Dume has been compromised, and older homes are being held to a newer standard.

Several Point Dume homeowners complained to the City Council in December, claiming the city’s selective enforcement of its zoning code amounts to “economic cleansing.”

In the past, the city has responded only to complaints from neighbors about nuisances, eyesores and the like. However, Gail Sumpter, the city’s new code enforcement officer, is apparently taking a more aggressive approach, cruising Point Dume in search of violations, residents say.

Vic Peterson, the city’s building official to whom Sumpter reports, said, “I’m not aware of any new directives from the council on code enforcement. We still respond only to complaints, but with the proviso that if we go out on a complaint and see a similar violation next door or across the street, we would write that up too. Usually that has to do with new construction without permits. If you don’t do that, you’re accused of selective enforcement.”

The City Council voted in December to change the code to make violations a misdemeanor with a $1,000-per-day fine for any code violation concerning building and safety, and zoning. “That doesn’t change the policy of enforcement, it just changes the penalty,” Peterson said. “We respond probably quicker to safety issues than normal zoning issues.”

“In mid December, Pat Daniels and Debbie Purucker and myself met with council members Carolyn Van Horn and Walt Keller as concerned citizens,” said Major. “I also talked informally with Joan House regarding the current new crackdown. The consensus was that we shouldn’t keep City Manager Harry Peacock out of the loop, but he refused to meet with us on those issues.”

The residents say they tried to set up an appointment to talk about guideline policies for staff as to how the building and zoning codes were enforced. “They declined to meet with us. We were told that we would have to take it up with the code enforcement officer directly regarding her policies and procedure.”

One resident said he was cited on an alleged code violation and was told in a letter from Sumpter she would not grant an extension, but that if he didn’t invite them on the property voluntarily, she would get a court order within three days to inspect the property.

“We had to ‘voluntarily’ let her inspect the property with a building inspector two days before Christmas. We were told these things [unpermitted structures] were grandfathered in if they were built before incorporation.”

But the burden of proof is on the current homeowner, who often has no idea when and under what circumstances the structures were built by previous owners. They seldom have records or copies of permits with the necessary information and say the city has no records either.

The county turned over its old building records to the city after incorporation, but many records apparently didn’t make it to City Hall. Peterson said he had no knowledge of any records lost by the city. “As I understand it, we received the records from the county when the city incorporated. Someone might have a problem finding their records because the county didn’t give it to us.”

When documentation can’t be found, some things could be checked against the city’s aerial photos. “We have aerial photographs that go back to incorporation, taken the day of incorporation, I think,” Peterson said.

In cases of old outbuildings, the county often would issue an approval of occupancy if there were no safety hazards. “It was a friendlier atmosphere,” Major said.

Peterson said a homeowner could go to the city’s Planning Department to document that the unpermitted structure is in conformance with county zoning codes in effect at that time and to determine if the property had appropriate zoning for that kind of structure.

“They would look at the setbacks, and if there was no problem, they would get approval to apply for an after-the-fact permit from the Building Department. Then, an inspection by Building and Safety would determine if in its current condition it is up to code or if some improvements had to be made. It could vary drastically from case to case, but a utility shed probably wouldn’t be a problem.”

The Malibu Board of Realtors has weighed in on the side of the residents. Similar issues were raised in 1993 by Realtor Paul Grisante. Terry Lucoff, of Fred Sands Malibu Office, said Realtors support the core issue of total grandfathering and they don’t want to have to police this because they’re held to a higher standard of full disclosure when property is sold.

Former City Attorney Christi Hogin issued a memo in 1993 to the General Plan Task Force recommending it adopt a grandfathering resolution approved by the City Council, but subsequently it was not written into the zoning ordinance.

“It’s an issue of fairness to all people in the community. It’s not fair for some people to queue up and go through the process and for others to go around it and get away with it,” Peterson said. “We try to be reasonable and assist people before it’s turned over to the city prosecutor. We can show that.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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