Highland On Verge Of Throwing Family Out On Street Over Zoning Discrepancy

(June 18) The city of Highland is on the brink of forcing a 57-year-old woman undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, her two teenage sons and her disabled brother out on the streets because the home they have lived in for the last 12 years is on industrially zoned property. The city is purposed to take that action despite the consideration that governmental records that might show the conversion and use of the property as a residential structure was properly permitted decades ago were destroyed in a flood that inundated county offices shortly after the conversion was completed.
Jeani Stephens lives in a two-story house with two fireplaces in the rustic 27000 block of Meines Street in Highland. She moved into the structure, which was originally built by her uncle in 1947 as a barn, in 2003. Stephens grew up in a home across the street. In 1969, her uncle sold the barn and the property upon which it sits to Angelo Posadas and his wife, Lila. The Posadas in the 1970s converted the barn into a residence, known as a mews.
Merriam Webster defines a mews as “(1): stables usually with living quarters built around a court [and] (2): living quarters adapted from such stables.” In fact, the barn the Posadas converted to a residence had been used by Jeani Stephens’ uncle as a forge for his horseshoeing enterprise. One of the chimneys on the structure was part of that forge operation.
When the Posadas made the conversion, the community of Highland was unincorporated and the county permitted the Posada family to live on the property and in the converted barn. The city of Highland was incorporated in 1987, at which point the city simply adopted the county’s general plan and zoning codes. At that time, the Meines Street property was zoned for residential use. In 1991, when the city formulated and adopted its own general plan and incorporated into that document a zoning map, the designated zoning on the property was listed as “Business Park,” action which coincided with the eventual closure of Norton Air Force Base. As late as 1994, at the International Convention of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas the city of H:ighland’s brochures identified the area as part of the “Fifth Street Business Park. “ The Posadas continued to live on the property and in 1999 the property passed to Thomas Posadas.
In 2003, Thomas Posadas put the property up for sale and Stephens, who had long had her eye on it, bought it, working one full time and two part time jobs to be able to purchase it. Pursuant to the purchase, inspections of the property were made, including inspections mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which served as the guarantor of the loan. Required repairs and improvements required as a consequence of those inspections were approved by the CDF/California Division of Forestry, now known as Cal-Fire, with which the city of Highland contracts for its fire and paramedic service. The map accompanying the documentation relating to the permitting for a propane tank on the property for a HUD-required wall heater, references the property as a “house.”
In 2005, the city expanded the zoning designation on the property from “Business Park” to “Industrial.” Under California law and custom preexisting uses are “grandfathered” in when a zoning change in a particular area is made. Grandfathering clauses consist of provisions in which an old rule or standard continues to apply to some existing situations while a new rule applies from a specified time forward to future cases. In this way, the converted barn’s use as a residential structure qualified as what urban planners refer to as “a legal non-conforming use.” .
Stephens’ travails started in May 2013, when a Highland code enforcement officer was summoned to that section of Meines Street to look into a report that people were living in a shed. That turned out to be a false report, but the code enforcement officer, in researching the property, determined the property was not zoned for residential use. Stephens was notified and a citation followed, calling for her to vacate “the barn” by July 1 of that year. The issue morphed into one in which the city claimed it could not find any record of permits having been granted for the conversion of the barn to a residence. Stephens was granted another 30 days while a search for the record of such permits was carried out.
It was around this time that Stephens, who works for Lowes, learned she had a brain tumor. As she began treatment for that malady, the city stepped up its enforcement action and she was informed that she and her two children and disabled brother would have to vacate the property.
When the search for documents showing the Posadas had secured proper permits to make the conversion came up empty, Stephens attempted to sell the property. She had a potential buyer but the deal fell out of escrow. The city further cited her for improper occupancy and for living in a converted barn without permits for it to be used as living space. The city further declared the residence as “unsafe.”
Stevens stepped up her attempts to sell the property, but with the requirement that she must disclose that it is deemed inhabitable because of its zoning, has found no takers. She cast around for some solution, appealing the city’s demand that she vacate to the Highland Public Nuisance Hearing Board, which on May 6 turned thumbs down on her request.
The city has already assessed a $500 fine against her for continuing to occupy the property. Another $750 assessment is due soon and that will, if she has not left, be followed by a further $1,000 fine. She has filled out paperwork for a hardship exception, which the city has so far granted.
A central tenet to the city’s case against Stephens is that the city cannot find, and Stephens cannot produce, any record of the Posadas having obtained permits to make the conversion.
Highland Councilwoman Jody Scott has taken up Stephens’ cause. Scott pointed out that flooding the county experienced in 1969 and again in the early 1970s resulted in the destruction of the county’s records pertaining to land use issues in what was then the unincorporated community of Highland.
“The city is taking this action against her based on an incomplete public record,” Scott told the Sentinel. “Just because the records have been destroyed or lost does not mean that the permits were never issued. What the city is doing to her is criminal.”
A last ditch appeal is now scheduled to go before the full city council on Tuesday June 23 at 6 p.m., at which it is anticipated that code enforcement officer Vivienne Muro and community development director Larry Mainez will assert it is a cut and dried case and that the city’s codes and regulations dictate that Stephens, her sons and her brother must leave the property at once. Stephens is yet recovering from the treatment she received for her cranial tumor.
Scott has recused herself from voting on the matter and will instead represent Stephens as her advocate before the city council on Tuesday.

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