Planning Department Reaches Record Level of Code Enforcement
By Susan Reines
August 6 -- Those with too-large signs or too-high fences in their yards beware: the Santa Monica Planning Department is becoming ever more efficient in locating violators and fining those who refuse to comply with the city’s ordinances.
The department issued a record number of compliance orders to residents who violated zoning rules in the past quarter of the year.
Tim McCormick of the Planning Department reported to the Planning Commission Wednesday that 119 violators received compliance orders in the last quarter -- more than in any other -- and that the orders had been “very effective tools” that motivated about 85 percent of violators to make the necessary changes.
Violators who fail to meet the terms of compliance orders within 30 days are now being directed to “pre-hearings” with city staff, a new intermediate step that gives residents one last chance to fix their violations before they are sent to administrative hearings where fines are levied.
McCormick said the new pre-hearing process has been “virtually 100 percent effective.”
Administrative hearings are time-consuming and expensive for the city, McCormick said, so the department implemented the pre-hearings as “more or less a last chance to explain that we are going to enforce this law.”
Pre-hearings motivated every violator except one to comply with regulations, he said. “We find a certain number of people just communicate better face to face.”
A highly publicized incident of code enforcement occurred earlier in the summer when the department decided to crack down on residents whose hedges exceeded the city’s height limits of 42 inches in front yards and 8 feet in side and back yards.
Warning letters saying violators could be fined up to $25,000 per day -- erroneously -- sent residents into a tizzy until the Council ordered a halt to enforcement of the hedge height limits until city staff conducts an analysis and develops possible amendments to the ordinance.
An end to all-night meetings?
One reason the meeting ran so long was that the commissioners held a discussion about how to truncate their notoriously long meetings, weighing options such as shortening public comment time, not beginning new items after a certain hour, and managing the meetings’ agendas more strictly.
Not only are the marathon meetings -- which sometimes run as late as 2 a.m. -- taxing for the commissioners, but the public is forced to choose between staying up until the wee hours of morning and not speaking on items at the end of the agenda.
“You see people walking out of our meetings,” said Commissioner Terry O’Day, suggesting that the commission adopt the same rules the City Council uses to regulate the length of its meetings, such as allowing each member of the public to speak for three minutes instead of the four the commission currently allows.
Commissioner Julie Dad suggested that the commission decide early in each meeting how many agenda items it can realistically complete so members of the public who attended for other items could leave.
Commissioner Arlene Hopkins disagreed, saying, “There have been cases where 50 to 100 people show up, and of course we are trying to encourage public participation, and I’m concerned that the public might feel disappointed or short-changed if they make the effort to come and we say, ‘Oh there are so many of you; we can’t hear you.’”
The commissioners agreed that placing fewer items on each meeting’s agenda would circumvent the entire problem -- although they acknowledged that sometimes items need to be rushed along to City Council and cannot wait for the next agenda.
The commissioners also discussed implementing some sort of time limit on meetings, such as not beginning new items after 11pm.City staff will develop specific recommendations for amendments to the commission’s rules of order and the commissioners will discuss them in more detail when drafts are ready.
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