Your new back-fence neighbor has demolished the existing single-story home on his property and is replacing it with the largest allowable two-story house and "accessory" buildings under the city's complicated rules.
In Palo Alto, property owners who are either building a new home or adding a second floor to an existing home must post a sign, notify neighbors and are subject to a formal design review and appeals process if a neighbor objects. This has encouraged early discussion with neighbors and created an incentive for resolving concerns amicably.
After examining the plans for your neighbor's new house, you have no objections. The proposed house and detached garage appear to fully conform with the setback and daylight plane requirements, which protect against unreasonable encroachment on the privacy of immediate neighbors.
Much to your surprise, however, when the garage and a storage building are actually built, more than a year later, they aren't consistent with the plans that were approved by the building department. Both buildings were constructed too close to the property line, are too tall and violate the daylight plane, creating a 10-foot high wall just inches from your property.
What happens next in such circumstances is one of the many issues examined over more than a year by the Palo Alto City Auditor's office during an audit of how the city goes about enforcing code violations. The city auditor, who is appointed by the City Council and is accountable to the council and not the city manager, issued a highly critical report earlier this month that describes a broken and ineffective compliance program badly in need of a complete overhaul.
From complaints such as the one described above to the less consequential but most frequent complaint — about noisy and often illegally operated gas-powered leaf blowers — the auditor found that citizens are frequently frustrated by a process that often doesn't resolve the problem, doesn't provide for timely feedback to the complainant and only rarely result in any fines or enforcement action.
The range of complaints are vast and the city staffing devoted to investigating them minimal. The city auditor focused on those that have attracted public and media attention, such as non-retail businesses located in ground-floor space that is required to be retail, construction projects that are dormant for months or years, non-permitted uses in residential neighborhoods and commercial projects that haven't provided the public benefits that were required when they were approved. Numerically, most citizen complaints pertain to noise (mostly leaf blowers) or violations of the hours construction is permitted.
The auditor's office was handicapped by poor and inconsistent record systems, making it difficult to compile and analyze data.
But auditors found plenty that needs fixing, from the various systems that are intended to keep track of complaints and their resolution to unclear responsibilities, staffing shortages and multiple reorganizations of enforcement duties. They also pointed to the minuscule number of cases that result in anything beyond warnings and "don't do it again" admonitions — outcomes that rarely satisfy citizens who have tried to get a violation remedied.
The audit points to other cities that handle code enforcement and citizen complaints much better and more transparently and recommends many specific improvements, virtually all of which incoming City Manager Ed Shikada embraced in his formal response to the findings. That's a good start.
The failures of the city's code-enforcement program are part of a broader problem that we hope Shikada's operations and engineering experience will solve: ineffective implementation of technology to carry out city functions and priorities. The business registry and parking-permit systems, two significant and exhaustively discussed council initiatives, have both been poorly implemented through a messy combination of staff work and outside consultants. Anyone who has attempted to utilize either of these online systems knows how poorly they function, leading to user frustration, inefficient use of city staff and an erosion in confidence in government. The city manager and each council member should try to use these online systems and experience first-hand what their constituents go through. Part of the problem is that staff attempt to implement overly complicated policies, and they demonstrate little or no user experience testing to ensure a smooth process or quality data. That's unacceptable in a community immersed in technology and innovation.
So what happened to that homeowner whose neighbor's garage was built too tall and too close to the property line? After making a complaint to the city and numerous meetings, emails and phone calls, more than a year later the city concluded that the building inspector missed the problem when he signed off on the construction and that nothing could be done because it would be unreasonably costly to force the homeowner to move the garage.
C'est la vie in Palo Alto.