Hesperia Code Enforcement Policy Levies Hefty Fines On Animal Rescuers

(July 26) With the dog days of summer upon us, the number of dying stray animals is on the rise, due in part to the region’s seasonal unforgiving sultriness.
In Hesperia, one of San Bernardino County’s hottest cities, the already-elevated incidence of neglected animals expiring due to exposure to the elements is exacerbated by the municipal code and city policy.
The city of Hesperia runs the Hesperia Animal Shelter, which despite admirable intentions, is inadequate to the task of humanely dealing with the demands of a 73-square mile city and the widespread desire that the facility be maintained as a no-kill asylum for lost pets, strays or unwanted animals.
Simultaneously, despite the consideration that Hesperia features as much or more property zoned for “residential agricultural” use as nearly any other city or town in the county, the city nonetheless enforces a strict limit on how many pets a homeowner may have according to lot size. Under the threat of draconian code enforcement action and heavy fines, homeowners have in many case chosen to abandon animals that have come under their care or ownership.
One case in point – that of the city’s code enforcement effort against Esther and Janet Duran –  illustrates how the city’s policies and overzealousness in the enforcement of its codes lacks sensitivity to not only humane considerations with regard to citizens efforts to protect animals but the ill-advised and ultimately costly lengths city officials have gone to in enforcing those coldhearted  rules.
In January 2010, the Hesperia code enforcement division took up a case that to all appearances was indistinguishable from the thousands of others in which the municipality used its authority, bankroll and control of the code enforcement process to overwhelm its citizens and obtain an inevitable adjudication in the city’s favor.
The division’s focus in this case was a property on Redwood Avenue owned by Esther Duran. which her daughter, Janet, was using as a temporary rescue shelter for horses that would otherwise have been sent to slaughterhouses for euthanization or processing for the dog food or glue manufacturing industries.
Janet Duran, an ambulance driver, in 2004 took up the cause of doomed horses, including wild mustangs run to ground by cowboys in Nevada and Arizona and ones being sold by their owners at auction, ostensibly to buyers interested in using them for horsemeat for as little as $5, $10, or $15 a head.
The Redwood property prior to city incorporation was zoned for agricultural use. The post-incorporation zoning was agricultural residential and the Durans were permitted under the city’s code to have up to six horses on the property per its acreage.
On January 13, 2010, a team of city employees that included two code enforcement officers, four armed sheriff’s department deputies in flak jackets and two animal control officers descended on the Durans’ property. One of the code enforcement officers served Esther Duran with papers and the team then seized three horses and five dogs, one of which was a stray whose owner the Durans were seeking to locate. Both Esther and Janet were cited and slapped with a total of $129,000 in fees, which upon the city’s processing protocol were ratcheted up into liens against the property. Those liens resulted in Esther Duran’s mortgage increasing from $1,400 to $4,700 per month.
Unwilling to take the city’s action lying down, the Durans hired Upland-based attorney Louis G. Fazzi. Fazzi brought several principles to bear which the city had in the past routinely overlooked in its enforcement efforts, including compliance with the city’s own codes, which actually allowed for the presence of up to three more horses than the Durans had on the property on January 13, 2010 and up to five dogs, as well as the right to due process. The city’s response was to seek a series of delays, which had the effect of increasing the Durans’ legal costs while the underlying issue – the return of their animals – remained unresolved.
Despite the cost, the Durans did not simply duck out of the fight. Fazzi persisted on their behalf, successfully removing the matter to federal court. Still, the city told the court the Durans were maintaining a substandard property and that the animals for that reason should not be returned to them. Fazzi maintained that the property was up to code and in compliance in all regards. In March 2012, a court-appointed independent inspector went over the Redwood property with a fine-tooth comb, concluding the property was indeed up to code.
In April 2012, U.S. District Court Judge John E. McDermott ruled that the city’s action against the Durans was improper and that their animals would have to be returned to them. Fazzi immediately brought a motion to have McDermott consider whether the entire process the Durans had been subjected to was unconstitutional.
While McDermott’s ruling was pending, the city offered the Durans a $200,000 settlement. The tendering of that offer, and the Durans’ acceptance of it, put the matter to rest, preventing a potentially precedent-setting ruling that would prohibit the city from continuing to employ the same tactics against other city residents.
There is no shortage of half-acre, one-acre, two-acre and even five acre and ten acre residential agricultural properties in Hesperia. Those lot sizes have not prevented the large scale demise of abandoned animals to the brutal elements in Hesperia or them being put to sleep by animal shelter workers.
Meanwhile, agricultural residential property owners and advocates of a more humane approach toward animal control are campaigning to have Hesperia change its animal control regulations and code enforcement tactics. Specifically, those advocates want reform that would  relax the city’s regulations regarding the number of animals per acre, so that animal rescuers would be free to take in, care for, feed and potentially adopt more animals, including ones incarcerated at the city’s shelter facing inevitable slaughter.

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