By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun
Representatives from Kern County Code Compliance Division were in the Kern River Valley last week for an informal meeting with members of the community and Lake Isabella Bodfish Property Owners Association.
Assistant Director Al Annan, Division Supervisor Al Rojas, and area Officer Jacob Clayton, met with a small group of residents to address their questions and concerns regarding the number of dilapidated and unsightly buildings in the area.
The meeting was arranged by Supervisor Mick Gleason’s office at the request of the LIBPOA following a “meet and greet” held in March.
Annan told the group that his objective was to get involved with the community, stating that during the “meet and greet,” he felt that there was a lack of communication between his department and the community.
“We have limited resources and restrictions, but we also have an obligation to the community. Our objective is to open up a dialog with you,” Annan said. “There is a lot of regulation and due process that we deal with, but our goal is to establish communication, and I want to hear from you.”
Kern Valley contractor Ron Smith questioned what he said was a ‘hot topic’ for him – what the county can do after a structure is red-tagged and boarded up.
Smith said there are numerous such buildings, including some that have been tagged and boarded adjacent to commercial property that he owns in Lake Isabella.
Rojas responded that if the structure has been boarded up and if the property owner has cleaned the property, that is all the county can do in terms of enforcement.
“We are limited as to how far we can take it,” Rojas said. He acknowledged that it looks bad for the community when there are numerous boarded up buildings, but he added that property owners have rights, and once a structure is secured, that is as far as the county can take it.
Kern Valley Sun Publisher, Marsha Smith, said she understands property owner rights, but having so many boarded-up buildings along Lake Isabella Blvd. discourages potential new businesses.
Rojas announced that Code Compliance will be implementing a pilot program within the next month where clear boards will be utilized on openings that are visible from the street of open and unsecured dwellings. The program will be implemented in certain areas for abatements performed by the county.
Code Compliance currently requires that boards be painted to match the structure on abatements that are performed by both property owners and the county. Rojas noted that Code Compliance only boards up structures when there is no response from a property owner.
The enforcement process can be a lengthy one, as the county is bound by not only local ordinances, but state law. Some compliance cases take a while to resolve due to the complexity of the case, such as locating and notifying all property owners and lienholders since every stakeholder must be notified and given the opportunity to respond to a compliance letter.
Rojas referred to Jacob Clayton as an aggressive compliance officer. Clayton covers the entire First Supervisorial District but is in the Kern Valley 2 to 3 days a week, meaning that he spends a majority of his time in the local area.
To date, a total of $95,592 has been spent on Board and Clean projects in the Kern River Valley, and $30,222 has been spent on demolition projects for a total of $125,814 during the current fiscal year, Rojas said.
The overall condition of a property and the response of the property owner determines the extent of action by Code Compliance, Rojas said. Once a property has been tagged, and if the trash has been removed, their enforcement is complete, while some properties require additional action and on-going monitoring by the County, a process that can last months, even years.
“Our objective is to work with the property owner and have them clean up their property,” Clayton said.
Claire Windham has reported numerous properties in the Reeder Tract and told Compliance representatives that when homes are boarded up, homeless individuals will simply remove the tag and go inside. She then told of another property that was cleaned up by a county-issued contract, but the junk and debris was given to a resident of property across the street, so the problem continues.
Windham stated her frustration with the amount of time it takes to clean up some properties, noting that in one case, it took 17 years to resolve.
Rojas said that the Sheriff’s Office maintains a data base of the tagged properties and can respond to calls reporting that those residences are being occupied.
When asked what constitutes a legitimate complaint, Rojas replied that having trash and debris that is visible and/or harboring rats would be considered a legitimate complaint. He added that household garbage is never allowed to piled up.
“Household trash must be removed once a week, if you are removing it yourself,” Rojas said.
Code Compliance is a complaint-driven department. When a complaint is received, the property owner is sent a courtesy letter requesting a response within 14 days. Rojas noted that a majority of cases are resolved after the courtesy letter and the complaint can be resolved within 45 days to three months.
Following the issuance of the courtesy letter, an inspection of the property is conducted. If a violation is confirmed, the county will send out a 30-day Notice and Order, advising the property owner they have 30 days to remove the violation.
A follow-up inspection is conducted and if the violation remains, a Declaration of Sub-Standard is filed with the Recorder’s office, which clouds the title of the property, preventing the owner from selling or even refinancing that property.
After 30 days, another inspection is conducted and if the violation persists, the county will solicit bids to hire a contractor to abate the violation. If the bid is less than $10,000, the project can be awarded. If clean-up and demolition will cost more than $10,000, the case must go before the Kern County Board of Supervisors, which requires a public hearing. Cost of clean-up is attached to the property as a tax lien and the property can ultimately be auctioned off after 5 years to allow the county to recoup the cost of clean-up.
LIBPOA president Carol Rutledge thanked the representatives for meeting with them adding that she felt they provided helpful information regarding how code compliance cases are processed.