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Code enforcement: Is it unfair?
Citizens argue City of Mantecas approach is wrong
Neighbors Pat Mullin, left, and Doug Zirpel stand in front of the shade structure that the City of Manteca cited as a fire hazard as it violated city setback rules. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Doug Zirpel is not a fan of the City of Manteca’s “hybrid” code enforcement.

Neither is John Griffin.

Zirpel was forced to tear down a shade structure that was non-conforming since it hugged the property line which is a no-no under city rules while pointing out there appeared to be at least a dozen similar violations within a six block radius of his home.

Griffin is being forced to spend $1,500 to move a new six-foot high fence in his side yard that is 30 inches too high because it falls within the five-foot setback rule for the sidewalk’s edge adopted due to safety concerns over sight lines. Griffin contends there isn’t a sight line issue and the city is simply enforcing a rule that doesn’t make sense for his property. He can point out other safety issues regarding sight lines that are obstructions around his neighborhood.

Zirpel and Griffin aren’t the first to question the fairness of the city’s code enforcement process. But Zirpel is the first to take his complaint not about his specific issue as much as how arbitrary and unfair he believes the entire process straight to the people who have the final say over how municipal staff goes about its business - the Manteca City Council.

Zirpel challenging city’s code enforcement policy

Zirpel asked Mayor Willie Weatherford to sponsor a spot on the agenda to address the city’s code enforcement policies. He’ll do just that on Tuesday when the council meets at 7 p.m. at the Civic Center, 1001 W. Center St.

Zirpel thinks it is ironic that the city approves zoning and code standards as well as CC&Rs - covenants, conditions and restrictions - when they approve developments but they opt to never enforce CC&R violations. Instead they say it should be treated as a civil matter if a homeowner on a parcel created with a city approved CC&R attached puts in place a TV antenna, paints the house an unauthorized color, or a multitude of other things that were required by the city as a condition of approval of the subdivision map.

Code enforcement has historically been a political hot potato in Manteca.

In the 1990s after it became apparent to council members that neighbors were targeting other neighbors in disputes, the council told staff that when they act on a reported code violation that they must enforce similar violations the code enforcement officer can see within a reasonable distance of the complaint. What triggered that policy was one gas station owned by an Iraqi Christian immigrant who always was being turned into the city for sign violations despite 20 other violations being visible within two blocks in either direction from Yosemite Avenue business.

The council - after getting complaints about Toters being left out in view - ordered city rules regarding their placement to be enforced. It was done first on a case by case basis - essentially complaint driven - and then it was expanded to those within a block of the address the complaint was made about.

When that also brought protests, the council directed staff with the assistance of Seniors Helping Area Residents and Police - to issue warnings citywide and to continue doing so and even issue tickets if needed to get compliance. That strategy worked.

New sign rules also will be complaint driven

Now the city is working on a new sign ordinance to bring non-conforming A-frame signs and human signs into compliance. Under existing policy, it will only be enforced and a complaint driven basis with the code enforcement officer instructed to cite similar violations within sight of the sign that a complaints lodged against.

Manteca City Manager Karen McLaughlin said the city’s code enforcement strategy is neither purely complaint driven or done en masse. Instead, McLaughlin said Manteca employs a “hybrid” approach.

She said using complaint driven enforcement alone by zeroing in on one property owner creates a situation where bickering neighbors can use code violations - and ultimately the city - to carry out their dispute. McLaughlin said if the city employed sweeping enforcement of all code violations it would be a “Gestapo” like approach.

Manteca has settled for the hybrid approach. That means when they do get a complaint, they go out and assess it. And if it is indeed a violation, they then make a look “as far as the eye can see” from that spot to see if there are similar code violations. If they are, they then cite those violators as well.

Zirpel doesn’t think that’s right. He believes if the city is going to adopt rules they should be enforced equally and not giving one person a pass simply because they are not within a sight line of a violator.

Zirpel noted in his case what caught the attention of the complainant - a city building inspector checking on a new roof - was the fact his shade structure, patio structure, and tool shed were too close to the property line and a fence. All three were within five feet of the property line.

Zirpel moved the shed five feet away and now half of it hangs over the grass while the other half remains on a cement slab. He disconnected a light fixture that he had wired without a permit to an electrical outlet box.

Questions why fire department has never cited him during annual weed inspections

As for the actual shade structure by the side of the garage, a contractor told him it would take $2,000 to bring it up to standards the city is requiring but he would have to lop off five feet rendering it essentially useless to park a vehicle under.

Several other neighbors were caught up in the same complaint and were cited.  Zirpel noted though, that the city employee that made the complaint had to have seen a number of other violations driving too and from the home where the roof he inspected was located and chose to ignore them.

Zirpel understands the setback rule addresses a legitimate issue of fire access and fire safety.

Even so, Zirpel noted the city is being completely arbitrary in how they enforce it.

Backing up his point is the city agency that actually is concerned the most about fire safety - the fire department - conducts annual inspections of all property in the city checking for weeds and debris clearly visible from a fire engine on the street. All of the 33 other structures that Zirpel pointed out during his short dive - plus hundreds if not thousands of more throughout Manteca that are too close to property lines - would also be visible from a fire engine as well as his own but were never cited by the fire department.