Aerial photos aid county planners enforcement
July 2, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
“They” are, indeed, watching.
Cameras are peeking through the clouds above San Luis Obispo County, and some residents are finding them not only invasive, but expensive.
Right now, the eyes in the sky are aimed down at the Jardine area east of downtown Paso Robles. The stated objective: a cleaner, safer, happier neighborhood. But there is a more benign objective, and that’s seeking out, isolating, and identifying structures that have been built without permits issued by the county. That means added revenues for county government in a time of economic constriction. Or at least, that’s the opinion of some.
Ruby Price, 79, a longtime Jardine resident, found a letter in her mailbox in mid-June which caused her great stress, according to her son, Bert Winston Shaw. It was from the SLO County Department of Planning and Building’s Senior Investigator Greg Camack.
Shaw elaborated on his mother’s reaction: “Damned near caused her to have a heart attack.”
The letter wasted no time getting to its point. At its top, in big, black letters, was the stern observation, “NOTICE OF VIOLATION.” Then, “We have recently determined that the following violations of the [county] code exist on your property.”
Accompanying the letter was a black-and-white copy of an aerial photograph of Price’s property, with a structure highlighted. It was her 16-year old barn, located on the back end of her five-acre parcel. It’s a neatly-painted, well-maintained structure that is structurally sound but has no a permit, according to Shaw, a Vietnam veteran. And it’s been standing there since 1992.
If Price did not immediately comply with the order, Camack informed the elderly widow, “You may be prosecuted in court. You may be subject to administrative fines.”
Along the way to compliance, Price could incur up-front costs in penalties and assessments of as much as $3,000, and substantially more than that in engineering fees required to bring the building up to code, by the county’s standards. If she chooses not to incur those expenses, she would be required to “abate the nuisance,” which is planning jargon for tearing down the barn.
“Neither option is pretty,” said Shaw. “She can’t afford either.”
Price’s is one of at least two dozen properties targeted by county enforcement efforts in the North County during recent months. It’s all part of a three-pronged clean-up campaign aimed at, according to county officials, “protecting property values, maintaining community standards, and protecting the environment.”
Properties identified by the county – by aerial photos, neighbor reports, and visual confirmation by inspectors – have alleged infractions ranging from unpermitted garage conversions; unlawful vehicle storage; occupied recreational vehicle; structured constructed without permits; outdoor storage; and stored mobile homes. Each residence received a letter similar to Price’s.
The program’s initial phase concentrated on piles of junk and wrecked automobiles that littered some yards in the area. Helping to defray the cost to homeowners were county dollars, such as waiving dump fees. Camack hoped that motivation would spur widespread cooperation along Jardine’s rugged roads.
“We really don’t use the aerial photos much,” he said, while acknowledging that some alleged violations on Jardine properties were documented using such photos. He said the photos are provided by government agencies other than the county, such as the U.S. Geological Service.
The Jardine area, with its rustic residences, dusty roads, and homeowners with a penchant for privacy, does not provide a welcoming atmosphere for county enforcement officers. Nevertheless, first phase efforts were quite successful, said Art Trinidade, the county’s chief code enforcement officer.
“We can’t just let that go,” said Trinidade of what he called “the condition” of the Jardine area before the current clean-up campaign. “We won’t allow it to. If something were to happen to someone in a structure that we had prior knowledge was not built to code, the county would be liable.”
The official said the program’s second phase consists of addressing structures that have been built without proper permits, and will continue through August. And the third and final phase is the legal clean-up: “Some property owners will not comply and will find themselves in court,” said Camack. He figures those kinds of cases will be limited.
Whatever the public motivation, said Shaw, the county’s efforts are putting his mother in a very tight spot.
“The letter they sent her said she could be prosecuted for misdemeanors,” he said. “That scared the hell out of her. Can you imagine that? She’s never even had a traffic ticket. And now she has to put up with this?”
In a follow-up letter to Price, Camack gave the woman until August 25 “to bring the property into compliance.” Camack will “try to help in any way I can or am allowed,” he wrote.
“They can help by leaving her alone,” said Shaw. He said he’s conducting his own informal survey of his 24 neighbors who have been contacted by the county.
And where will the county code enforcement dragnet next appear? For the time being, officials aren’t saying.