Seeking to clamp down on mysterious, blight-inducing and seemingly never-ending construction projects, Palo Alto is preparing to adopt a new law that would fine residents with expired building permits.
The proposed ordinance, which the City Council's Policy and Services Committee is scheduled to consider on Nov. 19, aims to address recent concerns from numerous residents about long-term construction projects in their neighborhoods. The council began to tackle this problem in September, after Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and council members Marc Berman, Karen Holman and Gail Price issued a colleagues memo calling for stricter penalties for construction laggards.
The memo argued that construction projects in local neighborhoods can cause "periodic traffic, parking, noise and visual impacts" for the community, which can be a problem when they are delayed by several years. An incomplete construction project, the memo stated, "can become an eye-sore, attractive nuisance and a problem for the residents and neighborhood."
"These incomplete projects detract from neighborhood quality of life and residents deserve an ordinance that they can rely on to ensure that housing projects start and finish in a reasonable time," the council members wrote in the memo.
At its Sept. 23 discussion, the council heard from former Mayor Gail Woolley, a Mariposa Avenue resident who described the "mystery project" that has been creating a blight on her Southgate block for the past seven years. The chain-link fence around the site went up in late 2007, she said, and the house behind the fence was demolished in 2008. Since then, not much has happened at the site, aside from a little construction and some drug and alcohol use.
On Wednesday, the city released its proposal for such an ordinance that would unravel these mystery projects: one that would fine an applicant for each day of unauthorized delay. Under the staff proposal, the penalty would be tied to building permits, with the fine tied to the magnitude of delinquency. If a building permit expired between 31 and 60 days ago, the penalty would be $200 per each day without an active permit. The fine would go up to $400 for days 61 through 120 and then to $800 per day "beginning on 121st day and for each day thereafter, with no upper limit." The chief building official would have the authority to modify or waive the penalty based on circumstances.
In tying penalties to building permits, Palo Alto planners are taking a different approach from cities like Atherton and San Bruno, which base their time limits for construction projects on square footage (in the case of the former) and value of the project (in the case of the latter). City planners argue in a new report that "project complexity and the time required to complete construction vary and are not always proportional to square footage or estimated value."
The recommended approach, the report states, "is consistent with the overarching goal that construction not be permitted to languish, and avoids imposing harsh penalties on minor delays while ensuring that complaint-based enforcement is available to dissuade truly stalled construction."
The staff proposal shouldn't be a tough sell. At its Sept. 23 meeting, City Council members all agreed that the city's building code should be updated to protect neighborhoods from construction blight. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who chairs the Policy and Services Committee, called the update "long overdue" and Mayor Greg Scharff called stalled construction projects a "quality of life issue" that has become common throughout Palo Alto, including in his own neighborhood. Councilwoman Gail Price agreed and said it's "extremely important" that the city moves forward with exploring new penalties for stalled construction projects.
"The sense of concern and urgency has become very clear by the very articulate community members who have simply had enough of this kind of condition," Price said.