Palo Alto to get tough over trash hazards
Owner of vacant lot and commercial property could face fines for noncompliance
Mounds of tree branches, trash, bags of garbage — and even a dead body once — littering a vacant lot and adjacent business have Palo Alto officials and Barron Park residents fed up with a property owner, residents said.
After more than a year of spotty compliance by the owner, the city is considering further actions to keep the area clean.
The lot is next to Palo Alto Tailoring on El Camino Real, just south of Barron Avenue. It's where the decomposing body of a homeless man was found in March 2009.
Residents said they don't feel safe, especially since last spring when the body was found.
"It is a serious problem. It attracts really unsafe activities. We've all been calling about that lot for a really long time. The person will not clean up anything. It is so beyond a health (and blight) issue," resident Lisa Altieri said.
The vacant lot is one of four parcels owned by Sarah Weigh, a 90-year-old Los Altos resident. Weigh also owns a corrugated-metal building at 505 Barron Ave., where trash has also accumulated, according to residents.
Neighbors said the tenant at 505 Barron, Barron Property Management, regularly stacks mounds of debris-filled black plastic trash bags in front of the building, which remain for up to two months at a time.
"There is a lot of construction storage. A few weeks ago there was a pile of garbage bags 6 feet high and 15 feet long in the right-of-way," said Wendy Parry, whose home faces the pile. "I've called code enforcement so many times I feel like a pest. People need to know it's a neighborhood and a community and not to use the property as a corporate yard."
An employee of Barron Property Management, who declined to give his name, said the company rents storage space at 505 Barron. He denied the problem has been ongoing.
The garbage bags of debris contained leaves and branches from the vacant lot, which a man from the tailor shop asked them to help clean up, he said. The city instructed the property owner to clean up the lot after the man was found dead in March.
Employees put the bags out for recycling pickup, but the city wouldn't take them away because it doesn't pick up leaves in plastic bags, the man said.
So employees dumped the yard waste into city recycling bins each week until the pile was eliminated, he said.
"It took five or six weeks to get rid of it all," he said.
He conceded that piles within the lot — remains of the homeless encampment — have attracted dumping. A collapsed shed owned by the tailor shop was also part of the pile, he said.
"Once the pile was there, it attracted other dumpers. There was a couch someone threw back there. Two months ago, one or more people dumped a load of furniture in the alley," he said.
Curtis Williams, city director of planning and community environment, said the city has worked with the property owner for more than a year, with limited success.
"Historically, we've had difficulty trying to get it cleaned up. This is a problem throughout the city. Occasionally we have lots that are not kept up. The city code doesn't allow us to do anything — it's not a specific violation. It's more of a nuisance issue," he said.
It might be time to start further action against the property owner, he said. The city could give the owner a clean-up notice, and if nothing is done it can impose a fine. In extreme cases, a court order can force the clean-up, and the city can put a lien against the property.
The owner, Weigh, could not be reached for comment. On Wednesday, the owner of Palo Alto Tailoring, who said her name is Sep, said Weigh is ill but that the problem is being handled.
Williams said he will ask code enforcement to step up patrol of the area.
Altieri has been working with Williams and other city officials to clean up another hazardous spot — an abandoned alley that runs behind the lot and adjacent retail strip and south behind Happy Donuts, south of Military Way.
The alley has been a source of frustration, noise and criminal activities for years, residents said.
Someone has put up "no parking" signs in the section of the alley south of Military Way. It was so choked with cars at one point that the fire department objected because trucks could not get through, according to Lynnie Melena, president of the Barron Park Association.
But there were at least four cars parked in the alley in front of the signs on Tuesday, she said.
The alley appears to still be a potential fire hazard.
On a weekday in early January, a drive through revealed several dried Christmas trees, produce and other matter stacked against a rickety plywood fence directly connected to a building. Several fires have started in the alley, according to Altieri.
The alley's ownership status is in limbo, according to Williams. Altieri and others are spearheading a campaign to have the city take it over.
"Neighborhood safety is the first priority here. We are working with the city on a long-term solution including upgrades and the city taking long-term responsibility," she said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at email@example.com.