Enforcement reflects the community | News | Palo Alto Online |


Enforcement reflects the community

Municipal code, city priorities guide officers' work

The city's case against Sand Hill Property Company, the developer at Edgewood Plaza that hasn't maintained a grocery store at the shopping center since The Fresh Market left in 2015, is an example of a code enforcement case that moved forward to an administrative hearing and judge's ruling. Weekly file photo.

More than perhaps any other City Hall program, code enforcement is a custom-built operation that mirrors its community.

When Lead Code Enforcement Officer James Stephens was working in San Luis Obispo (a city that, much like Palo Alto, is adjacent to a large and thriving university), most of his cases involved building violations, he told the Weekly. Because of the strong presence of California Polytechnic State University, there was also a high volume of property-maintenance cases ("Lots of red cups and couches in front yards," he said).

In Simi Valley, by contrast, the focus was more on commercial violations — protruding trash cans, illegal signs and things of that nature.

Because "code enforcement" can refer to anything from the health code and vehicle code to building code, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In some areas, the program is largely based in the police department; in others, it's housed in the building or planning divisions.

"It's really all about what direction the council is going and what they want you to enforce," Stephens said.

Attitudes toward violators also vary from city to city. Palo Alto Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said that no matter the city, the process typically always involves a complaint, followed by an investigation, followed by an option of voluntary compliance and — if that fails — enforcement action. But code enforcement officers have plenty of discretion when it comes to the number of notifications and the amount of time they will give a resident or a business to correct the violation.

In Palo Alto, where voluntary compliance is the overarching goal, a code-enforcement officer who spots a violation typically gives the property owner two weeks to comply (for complex issues that involve new planning permits, the period could be much longer). After that time is up, a code-enforcement officer will conduct a follow-up inspection. If the violation hasn't been fixed, the city will follow up with another letter, with a new deadline and a phone number that can be called for questions or further assistance.

Only if the subject refuses to cooperate or fails to do the bare minimum to correct the violation does the city issue a citation.

"A lot of it is based on good-faith efforts," Gitelman said. "Are they trying to understand what we're asking them to do and are they trying to come into compliance, or are they blowing us off?"

If the latter is true, the city has two options: It can issue a citation or — for more complex cases — ask for an administrative hearing and have a judge rule on the matter.

In the case of the recently redeveloped Edgewood Plaza in Palo Alto, code enforcement relied on both approaches. Sand Hill Property Company, the developer behind the project, was required to provide a grocery store as part of a "planned community" agreement that also permitted it to construct 10 homes (which it then sold for $3 million each).

In June 2013, after an extended period of vacancy, The Fresh Market moved into the grocery space, only to shutter in March 2015. That fall, spurred by residents' angst about the missing supermarket, the city began fining Sand Hill — first $500 per day; then $1,000. In November 2016, with still no market in sight, the council agreed to raise the fees to $5,000 per day — a decision that was cheered by frustrated neighbors.

"Please make Sand Hill think about a shiny new deli counter, the smell of fresh-cut roses and essentials of a healthy Palo Alto diet every time they write a check for $5,000 a day," Carla Carvalho, who lives near the plaza, said at the Nov. 7 meeting.

Sand Hill formally challenged the city's fine, calling it illegal and excessive. In April, the city's actions were affirmed by an administrative judge, who ruled that the developer must pay $248,250 in fines. To date, Sand Hill has paid $700,500 in penalties, though it scored a small victory on June 27, when a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge granted it a temporary reprieve from fines, pending the resolution of the dispute (the next hearing is set for October).

For code enforcement, the Sand Hill case was an exceptional success story. The city's action held up under judicial scrutiny and may have nudged the developer to finally fulfill the terms of the agreement (last month, Sand Hill announced a new grocer for the plaza).

Yet it is also an exception that proves the rule. It took 19 months, a council action and sustained pressure from the citizens to achieve the result. For violations that are less publicized, the enforcement tends to be far more lenient — as any critic of "planned community" zoning will tell you.

For code-enforcement officers, the municipal code helps set the tone for their work: The same code that they enforce dictates how they enforce it.

Some jurisdictions, Stephens said, have a process that allows code-enforcement officers to have an expedited process for fining repeat offenders. In Palo Alto, if someone corrects a violation and then — once code enforcement is out of the picture — reverts to illegal activities, the extensive multiple-notification process starts all over.

"It's all about how the municipal code is written," Stephens said. "The way the code is written has direct impact on case life, the steps involved in the case and how you go about enforcing.

"We have very outlined steps of what we have to do to eventually get compliance if said individual doesn't voluntarily comply. Other jurisdictions are a lot more conservative; other jurisdictions are a lot more liberal."

Related content:

Code enforcement: One of City Hall's most controversial, and misunderstood, jobs

For a team that consists of just three people, Palo Alto's code enforcers have been facing an unprecedented level of public scrutiny of late.

Why the bad rap?

Code enforcement officers deal with all the most vexing issues of the day — zoning violations, gas-powered leaf blowers, too much construction noise, etc. — and are often seen by residents as the last line of defense in resolving problems.


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13 people like this
Posted by Exceptional?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 14, 2017 at 12:21 am

It's truly dismal when the press can write, "For code enforcement, the Sand Hill case was an exceptional success story." Sand Hill has been out of compliance for over two years. During that time, it announced Andronico's and Lucky's were negotiating to come and then both fell through. Who knows if the latest little grocery store will or not. It's not clear that the public benefit clause the city is enforcing will even hold up in court.

And that's a "success story." God have pity on all the other cases in Palo Alto where developers aren't doing what they promised.

6 people like this
Posted by NeedMore
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 14, 2017 at 9:08 am

We need much more code enforcement - it takes years for violators to be fined and the same people can have an issue at another property and the City starts over. Repeat violators should not be given extra time with fining starting immediately. It is time the City gets serious about enforcement so that the development community doesn't treat it as a cost of doing business.

Currently a rational person would simply ignore the code and pay the small fine IF and when it might occur a few years down the road. The amount of money involved far outweighs a fine in most cases (Edgewood might be an exception but we're talking about a huge corporation in that case).

I hope the community will take these articles as a chance to start reporting more violations using the 311 App. Things like businesses running out of homes, illegal office complexes in retail locations, illegal signage, encroachments on to public easements for private use, noise, etc.

I'm aware of several hotels running in residential neighborhoods and will be reporting them.

7 people like this
Posted by Please enforce code
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 14, 2017 at 10:37 am

Palo Alto is going to be overrun by developers and businesses unless we abide by our residential policies, which are enforced in code. Silicon Valley seems to have this obnoxious principle of "Go ahead, ask for forgiveness later", which has to stop, since code violations can be very time-consuming to undo. Let's put more effort into enforcing the policies that are already on the books, and making sure that our City is resident-first going forward.

6 people like this
Posted by Stronger Code Enforcement Needed
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 14, 2017 at 4:01 pm

Sand Hill Edgewood Plaza was a sucess because the citizens went to city council. Our code enforcement needs teeth so a massive citizen effort is not required to get our existing munipal codes enforced. I

2 people like this
Posted by Jerry
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 14, 2017 at 4:22 pm

When Palo Alto starts to actually enforce the gas-powered leaf blower ban, I will start to believe that our codes actually matter. The way to tell that codes are not going to be enforced is to see if the code words "complaint based" are part of the original passage of the bill by our city council. Why should we have to complain to have our codes enforced?

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2017 at 5:04 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Actually, I've seen some improvement in the enforcement of the gas-powered leaf blower ban. I've gotten calls back from the police, and police have checked out the complaint. Unfortunately, the offenders rarely wait around. I have warned neighboring owners and gardeners that I will report them. This does seem to help but sadly, sometimes means strained relations with said neighbors and gardeners. I wish the police when patrolling would proactively warn offenders when seeing them on their rounds. I don't want to be the bad guy, but these leaf blowers are loud and really degrade air quality.

Like this comment
Posted by Jerry
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 15, 2017 at 9:00 pm

Marie, I appreciate your efforts! I have done the same thing. I got the same results as you. Yes, the police on patrol should just write tickets when they see violations...the problem will be over within a month. However, I think you are a bit naïve, because the code was written as "complaint based", and this means there was never any intention to enforce it. Our city council just gets through sticky issues by papering over them...been going on for decades.

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