Homeowner Questions Upland’s Code Citation Motives

(April 26) Even before the Upland City Council gave final approval to its new administrative citation ordinance on April 22, one city resident was challenging City Hall on whether the escalation of the city’s enforcement efforts and the increase in its fining authority would be reasonably applied.
The ordinance gives the city the ability to cite residents or businesses for code violations, subject them to a hearing process that utilizes city-paid and controlled hearing officers who are empowered to impose fines of up to $1,000 per day until the violation is redressed.
Robert Sparks, an Upland resident, said he was opposed to the city’s newly acquired authority and that the city has already abused the power it formerly possessed. He said that the complaint-driven nature of the city code enforcement function allowed city code enforcement officers to be used as a cat’s paw by vindictive neighbors against neighbors.
Sparks’ home in the 1400 block of Juanita Court stands out from others in his neighborhood.
“I take pride in the ownership of my house,” Sparks said. Indeed, over the years he has invested approaching $100,000 in improvements to the  home. Nevertheless, despite and actually because of his efforts at maintaining his property, the city’s code enforcement division has made life miserable for him.
“I built a deck in my backyard fourteen years ago, primarily as a playhouse for my kids,” Sparks said, noting he had obtained permits at that time for its construction. “Termites started to get into some of the structure, so I took off the detached bar where they [the termites] were primarily housed, and dissected the wood and found where they were and spot treated it.  My next door neighbor, who never liked the deck and thought of it as an intrusion into her privacy, called code enforcement.  The city cited me with a stop work order and sent out Luis Texiera from building and safety.  He was concerned primarily with finding out whether I was doing new construction, which would have to be permitted, or repairing something preexisting. I showed him what I was doing and his attitude was I was just doing normal maintenance on something that was already permitted and had been there for 14 years.  He said he was not sure what the complaint was about, but said, ‘You still have to go down to City Hall and explain.’ So I took off work and went down to building and safety and explained that I was just doing spot maintenance and was not building anything new. Carlos at the front counter said there was no issue with that and for me to go ahead.  So, I was releveling the surface and covering it with new fiberglass and putting in a sunscreen and two months later I get another stop work notice and was told to go to building and safety again, where I met with Mark Morton, the senior city building official. I explained to him what I was doing. He said that if it was extensive repairs and I was upgrading the side rail, there was a new code established in 2008 that required that it be 42 inches rather than 36 inches. That would require a new permit, a plot plan, and an engineer’s drawing, which would cost thousands of dollars. I said, ‘This is ridiculous.  If I do maintenance, I’m out of compliance. If I let it go, I’m in compliance.’ Mark said he would send Luis out there to look at it again and he left it up to him.  I called Luis and never heard back from him. I went ahead and finished all of the maintenance on the deck and got the sun screen up. Lo and behold, in April [2012] I get a notice from one of the code enforcement officers, Rachel Jarvis, that I didn’t follow through and replace the railing. And she says, ‘By the way, the columns in front of your house appear to be higher than three-and-a-half feet and I’m citing you for that.’ I responded back to her and to the city manager, Stephen Dunn, who I thought would be a voice of reason. What I got back was I was being threatened with prosecution for maintaining the home I have lived in for 26 years.  My neighbor to the east, who has video cameras pointed at my property throughout her backyard, has resented me having a deck in my own backyard for 14 years because she felt it was intruding on her privacy. She complained as soon as I started maintenance work on my deck. She used code enforcement to make a personal attack on me.  So the next thing is I have two code enforcement officers, a building inspector and two police cruisers show up at my house and they state that the columns on the front of my home appear to be higher than three-and-a-half feet. I measured the columns, which are light posts, myself.  They were not higher than three-and-a-half feet.  What I noticed was that the roots from the city-planted trees were causing displacement of the sidewalk so it looked from a certain perspective that the posts were higher up than they were. So, Luis goes and measures the columns and he determines they are less than three-and-a-half feet. At that point, they had been putting me through this for months. They were using the code enforcement department to carry out a vendetta for someone else. Because a code enforcement officer left her tape measure back at the office, I was declared guilty of a violation and had to prove my innocence.  They are issuing citations that say it  ‘appears’ a violation has taken  place and then using their department to intimidate and harass citizens without just cause and threaten them with prosecution if they don’t come down to their office in 10 days.  They are looking for anything to pick a fight over.”
Sparks wrote a letter to Dunn, decrying the city’s action. “I suggest you drop this personal vendetta you are pursuing and put our tax dollars to better use,” he wrote. “Don’t use me for your job justification.”
In response, the city went over Spark’s property with a fine-toothed comb once more, at which point city inspectors found that there were electrical lines in the columns for the lights set into them. They cited him for not having a permit for the electrical wiring. Sparks paid $250 for the permit, justifying the interminable code enforcement effort that had been carried out against him.
“Is that what all of this is about – turning neighbors against neighbors?” Sparks asked. “Regarding the columns’ height, I make every effort to make my home not only look attractive, but also follow city codes regarding height and placement.  I would invite anyone to come onto my street and look at my house. It is an oasis in a neighborhood of mediocrity. What I have done is overbuilt my property in comparison to what is around it. There are two columns placed on either side of the sidewalk leading to the entry. The column on the right is a perfect 42” high, per code. The column on the left is level to the one on the right. The city trees at the curb have roots that have altered the height of the sidewalk such that it slopes downward from right to left. I doubt that the city would or should spend the time and money to make the sidewalk level. Regarding the deck railing issue, the maintenance I performed was on an existing permitted and engineered structure. The structure over time needed some repair and I repaired those areas that needed it. I did not enlarge it, restructure it, or repurpose it, I simply put it back the way it was originally permitted, much as you would replace the tread on a step or repaint. The city has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to establish petty violations and this is especially obvious when I observe more blatant violations around town that clearly have not been addressed. It is my hope that as the city receives ‘complaints’ regarding my efforts to improve my property, the city will finally view them as simply neighbor retaliation on unrelated matters rather than affronts against city safety.”
That, however, does not appear to be the case. At present the city is pursuing another case against Sparks, maintaining that after Jarvis carried out research on his property going back 40 years, she could not find a permit for the cover over Spark’s patio.
At the April 22 council meeting just before the city council voted 3-2 to give final passage to the administrative citation ordinance, Dunn said, “We’re not through with Mr. Sparks yet.”
Under the ordinance passed by the city council this week, which was opposed by Sparks and six others during the public hearing, the city now has the authority to fine him a maximum of $1,000 per day until he comes into compliance with their demand that he deconstruct and remove his patio cover.
City manager Stephen Dunn told the Sentinel the city felt it had justification in pursuing both code enforcement and building and safety inspections on Sparks’ property.
“He was able to give everyone his side of the story for four minutes at tonight’s council meeting,” Dunn said on April 22. “You haven’t heard our side yet.”
Asked by the Sentinel to present the city’s case against Sparks, Dunn responded, “I don’t think I’m in a position to do that. Building and safety determined he didn’t have a permit for the lighting posts. What does that tell you?”

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