The Manteca City Council made me a lawbreaker.
And it’s because I followed city law.
You don’t have to look to Sacramento or even DC to see how a disconnected decision making process that’s then turned over in half-baked form to government employees can be turned into a bureaucratic nightmare for honest, law-abiding citizens who want to do the right thing but their government makes it impossible for them to do so.
So in order to hopefully avoid being branded a lawbreaker down the road I accepted the City of Manteca’s amnesty program — or offer thereof — because they can still opt to decide I’m breaking the law although I broke no law.
I’m referencing the city’s fence height waiver request that allows me to have a legal 7-foot fence that was legal to erect at the time I did in April of 2008 as it was legal to do so then under Manteca municipal law.
While the municipal code allowed it at the time I still asked — like more than a few other Manteca residents — to have city staff put it in writing. I was told it wasn’t necessary to do so since the city ordinance said a 7-foot high fence was legal.
It should be noted the City Council — on fences and other issues — have been correctly advised by legal counsel that it doesn’t matter what a city employee says or even puts in writing regarding city policies if the code says otherwise or that a formal appeal process didn’t approve whatever action is in question. What the courts will rely on in making a decision are city laws and formal rulings. More about that later.
Typically when the city changes the rules and a previously approved use no longer complies to updated municipal standards it is an allowed use that is grandfathered in.
But in this case Manteca residents are being required to file a request for a waiver by this Sunday to make an action that was legal when it occurred not to be subject to city edicts to have it removed at a later time.
It gets worse.
I asked the counter person at the much ballyhooed one stop shop for all your bureaucratic approvals related to property use at the Civic Center whether this meant in the future if I replaced a segment of the fence because it was deteriorating whether I could legally replace it with a 7-foot fence. The answer was “no.” So I asked if it was simply a few boards needing replacing. It was a straightforward question that brought the answer I’d have to talk to the city’s fence expert and was provided a card with contact information.
They are straight forward questions that at some point everyone with an allowed 7-foot wood fence will need answered. One would think such information would have been included in the fence waiver forms stuffed in last month’s municipal utility bills.
Remember the word of the city fence expert won’t matter based on advice of the city’s legal counsel. So what value would an answer from the fence expert be if when push comes to shove a citizen can’t fall back on the words they are told by a municipal employee?
Now for the punchline. It was the city’s fence expert who deals with frustrated and often angry city residents who find they have run afoul of the city’s fence rules du jour that recommended the council adopt a universal basic 7-foot cap on residential fence heights to essentially eliminate the leading point of confusion and frustration Manteca homeowners have with city zoning issues. The Manteca Planning Commission concurred with the recommendation including the three members now running for two open seats on the City Council — Eric Hayes, Gary Singh, and Jeff Zellner.
They obviously heard what staff was saying as well as the public and weighed it against concerns of Manteca Police brass that said it was tougher for their officers to scale and/or look over 7-foot fences than it is 6-foot fences.
Five years ago I had a neighbor who called police at 2 a.m. when they saw someone try to scale my 7-foot fence before I got home from work.
When I bought the home, the 5-foot fence that was in place along the alley was essentially down. In the month that elapsed before I was in a position to pay for a new fence, I discovered there was a drug house up the block and their clients were using the alley in the wee hours of the morning to travel to and from it. The police were able eventually to address the drug house but it took more than a year. Meanwhile I didn’t have to worry about drug users — who many in law enforcement will tell you have a tendency to resort to petty theft to support their habit — scoping out my backyard looking for ways to fund their habit.
Several years later when the local zoning code reverted back to 6-foot fences, a neighbor who spent his career as a correctional officer had a drug house pop up across his alley. He found it more than a little disconcerting that people would walk down the alley and look over his 6-foot fence and into the back windows of his home.
He mused that he wished he had been able to put in a 7-foot fence when he legally could to reduce the chances of being a crime victim.
The City Council needs to revisit the fence and clean up a mess that they made worse.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.