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."
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.
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.