Code Enforcement Leaves Some Homeowners in Disrepair

Imperial Beach homeowners for and against the city's code enforcement policies. When violations aren't taken care of in time, they can lead to thousands of dollars in fines.

Single father Donald Winnie went to work one day and left his children with their nanny who doesn't speak English. He said when he got home she was frightened and had no clue why people with badges were there, but was too afraid not to let them enter.

"She said they knocked on the door on the door and demanded to get into the house," Winnie said. "They illegally entered my property without my permission."

Winnie said city code compliance officer David Garcias told him an interpreter was available and that the babysitter fully understood the reason for entering his home, but that isn't what his babysitter said.

"I told Garcias I didn't appreciate him intimidating my babysitter to gain access into my home without my presence," he said. "She doesn't speak English and she did not understand who they were or why there were at the house. She was terrified when I returned."

Winnie said he feels he has been harassed by Garcias, and he currently faces more than $3,000 in fines.

Enforcement of Imperial Beach municipal code, or code compliance, is often controversial. 

Some cases have resulted and drawn privacy concerns from homeowners who say they have a right to do as they please on their own property. 

In public and in private, homeowners have described code compliance officer David Garcias as "heavy-handed," a "bully" and "harasser."

Others said code compliance is necessary and wanted by Imperial Beach residents.

Frisked by Imperial Beach Sheriff's deputies before speaking to city council in August, homeowner Robert Brians said allegations that he threatened code compliance officer Tommy Simmons are false.

On July 24, Brians saw Simmons take pictures into his neighbors backyard while standing on top of his truck for a code compliance investigation.

Six days after an altercation between the two, a restraining order was issued against Brians, and he was arrested on his way to work on felony charges of threatening a government employee. The restraining order requires he stay 100 feet from City Hall except for City Council meetings.

"I have teenage daughters and so do many of my neighbors," Brians said. "I don't know how you would feel if people were taking pictures in your backyards of your kids, but we don't appreciate it."

Brians said he has negative experiences going back years with officers Garcias and Simmons. He feels both have demonstrated aggressive behavior with homeowners like Donald Winnie, who told Brians a code compliance officer entered his home when he was at work.

"Is this anything you care about? Can people just walk in and push around people," Brians asked the city council.

Brians said he knows many people with their own stories of bad experiences with code compliance officers and plans to collect signatures to present at a future council meeting. 

More than 500 violations were passed out by code enforcement officers across IB in 2010, more than any other city agency. With the implementation of a systematic code compliance campaign that started a year ago, code violation cases rose 70 percent by this summer and created a 30-day backlog.

When the campaign was up for review by council in June, Community Development Department director Greg Wade requested additional staff to field more cases or an amendment to the plan. The request for additional staff was denied and the campaign was temporarily stopped for modifications.

It was to appear before council again last month, but those plans were halted for a yet to be determined date in 2012.

An increase in code compliance was also recommended ahead of the opening of a new hotel.

"How we handle the systematic code enforcement is going to be a crucial test on how well we can maintain our case load and not get back logged again," he said. "We believe what we will propose to council will not be nearly the level of involvement that the first go round did where we got so behind, so that is the good news."

Wade said code compliance is necessary but he understands the controversy.

"No matter what city, code compliance is the most difficult to deal with," he said.

He said perception can vary from person to person because they are being told what to do and might perceive code enforcement officers as being heavy handed and aggressive when it is not the case.

"It is simply by virtue of being told what they have to do with their own property," Wade said. "When I watch and listen to Garcias in action, very rarely does he need to raise his voice."

There are two sides to the story in both Brians and Winnie's cases, Wade said.

In the case of Winnie, he said policy is not to comment on active code compliant cases, but Simmons, not Garcias, was initially involved and code compliance officers are not to enter a home without a translator.

He said an explanation of the visit was given to the woman in Spanish and she allowed Simmons access to the home.

In regards to accusations from Brians, Wade said it is not normal practice to stand in the back of trucks and take photos. He said Simmons was working with the property owner on a follow up of an active code compliance case and that the homeowner was cooperative with Simmons.

"After the picture was taken, Simmons went to the front of the property to speak with the homeowner about how progress was proceeding," Wade said. "In this case we had seen the property before and were given direct access by the homeowner. In many complaint cases, neighbors invite them onto their property to see what they have to look at every day."

Homeowner Chuck Quisenberry spoke to council at the meeting discussing systematic code enforcement in June. He called code enforcement a massive waste of taxpayer's money and believes it is fueled by a small group of people that consider IB their "little Del Mar." 

"We are a bunch of working class people doing our best. We don't need them telling us how to live our lives," he said. "What they did do well was piss me off to come to a city council meeting, which I haven't done since 1985."

Quisenberry believes the city targets certain areas while ignoring larger violations nearby. 

Quisenberry said he was served a notice regarding his mobile home and plants growing in his front yard. He said he refuses to pay any fines and the city has no right to tell him what he can and cannot grow.

Wade said the original notice of violation came from the city's Public Works Department and Quisenberry had plants with large thorns growing in the public right of way.

"We are trying to protect the property owner's own liability as well," Wade said. "Plants growing in the sidewalk, that is a hazard or safety concern."

"We try to make it clear on the notifications that you are not being fined, but that you could be if the violation is not corrected," Wade said. "It is our job and there is a lot of support for code enforcement in our community."

Homeowner Matthew Walter said when he moved into his home more than a year ago that he was told that the garage conversion did not comply. This came as a surprise to him as many other homes in the neighborhood had similar conversions done to their homes. 

He was given two choices: come into compliance or demolish the garage. In choosing to demolish he said it cost him more than 300 square feet of living space, a bedroom and a bathroom.

"And I am glad they did it," Walter said. "We discovered that prior owners, when there was no code compliance in the city, had done shoddy wiring, bad roofing and plumbing that wouldn't drain. If the city had not done this, I would not have discovered these things until it became catastrophic."

Walter said it makes him angry to see similar violations around him that aren't held to the same standard. 

He said he is fortunate to have the money to do the work necessary, and it is a difficult process, but he still fully supports the city's code enforcement policies.

"I would like to see this city uniformly and systematically enforce building standards," Walter said. "It is not right to inspect one house and not be able to look at the house next door due to case load. Uniformed and systematic code enforcement is the number one thing the city can do to improve its appearance, reputation and property values. I am not asking for more codes, I am simply asking for action to be taken for those that are on the books."

Councilwoman Lorie Bragg said code compliance is something the community desperately wanted before the city hired its first code compliance officer in the mid 1990s.

"It has been a success," she said. "If you look around our community today, you can see great strides that we have made in the appearance of our neighborhoods. That is what we wanted."

Bragg said she is not in favor of disbanding code compliance but in looking at details, it could be downsized to look only for the most egregious cases.

If a homeowner receives a notice of violation, contact code enforcement. The department is willing to give extensions as long as someone contacts the office and is willing to work with the city. He said this was done at one point in the Winnie case.

"Anytime we get a reasonable request, we are willing to take that step," Wade said. "Where we have difficulty is when there is no contact. It forces us to do what we have to do to get compliance."

David D January 09, 2012 at 07:47 PM
Is it just me or does the I.B. City Council refuse any sort of public comment that acknowledges or addresses the questions being asked? They just seem to repeat the mantra that code enforcement is good for the city, quality of life, etc. I don't think there's a ton of argument that improving neighborhoods is a good thing, or holding buildings up to current code, when appropriate, should be expected. But they don't answer the uneven manner it's done, the extent to which they are enforcing their code, or the ways in which they will try to enforce it. There's not even the lip service of pretending to look into complaints, simply the dismissal that nobody likes being told what to do, hence are going to complain. I believe uniformly, threats and assault against city employees can be on the same level as law enforcement, meaning you simply cannot do that without being arrested. So how is it that this guy made such explicit threats, yet it was greeted at first with a restraining order and then arrest much later after the fact? Code enforcement doesn't show any restraint when telling someone that he's let his grass go a day too long without being cut, does anyone reasonably believe they'd just take threats of assault and not immediately call the Sheriff Dept.? I really don't expect code enforcement to change their tactics. They're doing this complicit with the city council's marching orders. Raise money, chase out home owners so they tear down and rebuild.
David D January 09, 2012 at 08:10 PM
Did they even bother to address the question of why a code compliance officer felt the need to enter a house when the owner or tenant of the house was not there? If they had a translator, as claimed, then it would have been obvious to them it was a baby sitter. It was an employee, not anyone that the city would have any business discussing home owner issues with. Does he care to acknowledge there's a serious issue with that? Or do you gain entry into a home by any means necessary to do whatever you want? Why not just break out the window in that case? But that is as Wade sums it up, simply homeowners not liking being told what to do. I don't need to raise my voice to bully or coerce anyone, by the way. When you can calmly levy fines, threaten to take away someone's home, have you arrested if you so much as disagree or try to disagree with the city council, it's as Roosevelt called it, speaking softly but carrying a big stick. Beyond that though, I think it's pretty obvious that an employee is on his best behavior in front of his boss. Not exactly proof positive that there is zero possibility of problem behavior. Well not for the city so much, they seem fine with bullying the citizens. They certainly don't care to do anything like actually listen when residents have issues with their policies. How often to they need to be reminded that people won't put up with eminent domain or high rises along the beach?
class of 76' January 10, 2012 at 09:21 PM
Chuck, i've been told by the code enforcement person that they come out if someone calls them about a problem. I've lived in the same house for 43 years and ever had a problem until new people moved in area us. My son dead 3 years ago and my grandmother last year so i have two extra cars i can't get in my driveway. These guys come by ever three days to make sure i have moved my cars. The people across the street called because i'm parking in front of they house on a public road. Then i'm told my trash cans are on the road after trash day to long ( a couple of times 2 days) but the next door people have theirs out there all week and no one talks to her. these are not Code Enforcement there are money makers for the city. Later GD
Jack Fisher October 19, 2012 at 05:48 AM
So if code compliance was so important to help keep up the look of the City and enforce the laws, what has been going on since Garcias has been gone? It's been a few months now. Has anyone been contacted by code enforcement recently?
Pop Quiz November 25, 2013 at 12:06 AM
Get ready for a cycled up version of the same harassment. The Hotel is opening any year now. The city is getting ready to destroy our building height and density codes. They will vote to destroy my home town early in December. The new codes will allow more density and less parking. But tickets for trash cans left out will remain a offense. Good bye small town Imperial Beach. Say hello to more traffic, less parking, more noise and a diminished quality of life. The residents do not matter to this council. Only their well connected friends. Spriggs and Bragg are lapel pin wearing members of the Seacoasters. And Patton's election was partially funded by the Seacoasters President. That is 3 out of 5, on the council.


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