City Forces Two Highland Widows To Tear Down Their Husbands’ Legacies

In the otherwise sedate, civil and low key community of Highland, city officials seem to have punctured a hornets’ nest with code enforcement actions against two widows over what many consider to be the negligible issue of garage conversions done by their late husbands decades ago.
City code enforcement officers cited Violet Gomez for an enclosed non-permitted alteration to her garage located at her home located within the 7686 block of Merito Avenue. In addition to having failed to get a permit for the garage conversion, city officials maintain, she is in violation of the city code section requiring that all single family residences have a garage in which two automobiles can be kept.
Gomez maintained that the enclosure was done 25 years ago by her late husband, who had obtained a permit to add a bathroom to the garage along with making other improvements. For city officials, however, the issue is cut and dried. Officially, they ignored Gomez’s entreaties and discounted the importuning of her neighbors, who noted that her home exceeds the outward visual standards of the city and its neighborhood. No one on the city council seconded councilwoman Jody Scott’s motion to grant Gomez her appeal of the Public Nuisance Hearing Board’s decision. The council, over Scott’s dissent, declined to “grandfather in” the garage enclosure, which would have allowed it to remain in place.
According to the city attorney, granting Gomez’s appeal would open the flood gates to other conversions and unpermitted alterations on other properties throughout the city.
The council, however, did direct city staff to work with Gomez to determine if a garage could be erected on another portion of her property and if the permit her husband obtained a quarter of a century ago could be construed to apply to the garage conversion.
Shortly after the city council turned down Gomez’s request, details emerged about a similar enforcement action against another widow, Sue Moore, also now living on a fixed income, who is being put through her paces because of a conversion her husband did four decades ago to the house she now lives in.
In Moore’s case, the city objected to the conversion of her home’s garage into a bedroom. Citing the section of the city code requiring all single family residences to have either a attached or detached garage, the Highland code enforcement division demanded that she reconvert the bedroom to a garage.
So far, Moore has reinstalled a garage door and taken out an air conditioning unit and is in the process of removing paneling, flooring, a closet and her bed.
The city is no more inclined to grant Moore a pass than it was willing to grandfather Gomez’s conversion.
Scott said that the city was applying its codes with too broad of a brush. “I understand the reason for the codes,” she said. “I understand why staff and the city attorney and city council are enforcing this. They don’t want to open up a can of worms by making an exception in these cases that will encourage others to build structures or make alterations without permits. But I think that if something has been here for twenty-plus years, it should be grandfathered in. I voted to let them be grandfathered, but I lost.”
Scott said of both the Gomez and Moore cases, “These additions were tastefully done. If you just look around Highland and see some of the real code enforcement issues and you see all of the junk that came in here when we were under the rules of the county, it is like comparing apples to oranges. I would love to have one of these properties in my neighborhood.”
There is hope, Scott said, at least in Gomez’s case, that the city will relent. “My understanding is staff will work with Mrs.  Gomez to see if another piece of her property can be used for building a garage,” she said. “Part of the problem is if you build something that is more than 100 square feet, you have to put in fire sprinklers. That is expensive, an expense that should not be. It does not make sense. She is working with Larry Mainez on that.”
Mainez, the city planner, told the Sentinel, “The Public Nuisance Hearing Board upheld the code enforcement division, which had cited Mrs. Gomez for an illegal garage conversion. We are seeing right now whether she might comply with city code by using an existing storage structure or other property in her backyard for a garage.”
With regard to Moore’s situation, Mainez said, “That is an ongoing case and I shouldn’t get into details. We will work to find a solution. Mrs. Moore has other administrative remedies, such as appealing this to the city council. It is unfortunate it had to get that far that we had to cite her.”
According to Mainez, there are multiple illegal garage conversions in Highland. “We do have others in the city,” he said. “We make about 15 citations for that per year that are based on complaints by neighbors or renters.”
Grandfathering of preexisting uses can take place, Mainez said, but only under certain conditions. “What we call grandfathering is being declared as having legal nonconforming status,” he said.
That categorization applies to homes built prior to city incorporation in 1987 that were not built to the code the city adopted. But anyone who made conversions without permits, either before or after incorporation, Mainez said, is not eligible for obtaining legal nonconforming status.
“The county began keeping records of the permits it issued in 1947,” he said. “We have a very good relationship with the county and we have access to those records. If you had a permit for a structure, even if it does not meet the city’s current code, we can grandfather you. If you are in a single family residence and you make a conversion without first getting a permit, you cannot come in and get a permit afterward. Anyone who did not pull a permit does not get the protection of nonconforming use. At that point it becomes a health and safety issue. Things have to be safe from the standpoint of plumbing and electrical and structural integrity.”
Mainez noted that the recent enforcement action against Gomez and Moore had triggered a conceptual reexamination of the definition of compliance and what the criteria for granting legal nonconforming status should be.
“We are working on changes to the city code regarding nonconforming issues,” he said. “This will not be completed for the council’s review for at least several months.” Mainez said he anticipated “an interesting debate. We will  have to take this to the planning commission. We have to ensure, of course, that anything allowed under a grandfathered conversion is safe. We will also look at timelines and what the cutoff date will be. Will we say that anything built legally before 1987 is acceptable? Will there be some other date used?  My preference now is anything built without a permit should be removed. I think safety should take precedence over the other considerations.”
Scott said she doubted the city council will make much in the way of any substantial change to the municipal code regarding longstanding uses that are not now eligible for retroactive permitting.
“We can always hope, but I know that they [her council colleagues] are pretty set in their ways,” she said.
Nevertheless, she said, neither Gomez nor Moore should knuckle under. “If it were me, I’d keep fighting. It just isn’t fair. I know we don’t want to open the door to people ignoring our standards, but there are extenuating circumstances and these are two of them.”

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